2020 will be a very important year for the world’s seas and ocean, with the 15th CBD COP  (Convention on Biodiversity) and the 2nd UN Ocean Conference giving an opportunity to the EU to demonstrate its leadership in protecting the marine environment and the rich ecosystems we depend on. Given its ambitious marine, fisheries and nature conservation laws and policies, the EU should be at the forefront of the global fight to save our seas. Unfortunately, massive delays in implementing these legally-binding commitments mean European seas and their wildlife continue to suffer from the cumulative impacts of overfishing, by-catch, seabed destruction and plastic, chemical, nutrient and noise pollution. Delays in implementing the Marine Directive (Directive 2008/56/EC) and the lack of ambitious measures taken by Member States mean that it is unlikely that we achieve Good Environmental Status of all EU seas by 2020. While progress has been made in some areas, other threats to the health of our seas, such as nutrient and chemical pollution or overfishing, are still not properly addressed, despite the adequate legal instruments being in place at EU level for a long time. Member States need to dedicate a lot more political capital and human and financial resources to the objective of achieving Good Environmental Status of EU seas by 2020. While the reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP, Regulation 1380/2013) set out ambitious objectives to ensure that fishing is not detrimental to European marine ecosystems, the implementation of the regulation through the adoption of regional MultiAnnual Plans (MAPs) has led to the weakening of the original level of ambition. MAPs fail to ensure that all stocks, whether the primary target of fishing activities or unwanted bycatch, will be managed in a sustainable manner. One year before the CFP deadline, Member States are still setting fishing rates above scientific advice for 41% of the assessed stocks in the north-east Atlantic and adopting weak MAPs for the Mediterranean where more than 90% of the stocks are overfished. Both marine and freshwater aquaculture can have potential detrimental environmental impacts, especially to sensitive species and habitats, including pressure on fish stocks, eutrophication, litter pollution, and genetic pollution to wild population by escapees. The current discussions on the revision of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) have implications for the EU aquaculture sector as it relies on good water quality for its operations, while also representing a factor in water quality degradation. However, the European Commission has yet to formally assess these impacts at EU level and set out binding guidance to ensure the sustainability of the sector. Plastic pollution is a concrete threat to our ocean and to marine wildlife, on which we can act immediately. Civil society’s outcry against plastic pollution has led to a swift and ambitious response from the EU. The recent adoption of the EU Plastics Strategy and the development of the Single-Use Plastic Directive are the result of this popular awakening. These laws should be implemented with a high level of ambition to reach their ultimate objective. Member States should ensure that quality monitoring systems are in place to collect reliable data on single-use plastics production, recycling and disposal. Specific regulation to ban microplastics from cosmetics, personal care items and detergents should be adopted to drastically reduce their environmental impact. The precautionary principle should be respected and resource-efficiency and waste prevention should prevail over short-term economic decisions. Underwater noise pollution is only starting to emerge in the public discourse as a problem but it has been damaging the health of marine animals, in particular cetaceans, for many years. Despite the strong impetus given by the Marine Directive to prevent noise pollution, many Member States continue to link their absence of measures to the claim that not enough is known. The precautionary principle dictates that Member States adopt immediately the measures that are known to have a strong preventive effect on the emission of underwater noise, including the reducing the speed of ships and imposing the use of quieter technologies in shipping, seismic surveys and pile driving. Finally, at the same time as impacts from human activities are prevented, marine wildlife needs safe havens where it can take a breath and recover from damage done to its natural environment. Despite political commitment and the strict legal regime of the Nature Directives, a coherent network of effectively managed marine protected areas is still not in place in European seas. Lack of management in ‘paper parks’ means that damage is on-going in what are supposed to be areas protected from us. In addition, lack of financial resources committed to the management of ‘paper parks’ impedes conservation progress.

Member States should take responsibility to preserve our seas by:

  • Safeguarding and implementing the high standards of existing EU environmental law, in particular the WFD, the Nature Directives, the CFP, the REACH regulation, the Plastics Strategy and the Single-Use Plastics Directive;
  • Adopting much higher environmental standards during the upcoming reform of the CAP and the Packaging Directive;
  • Ensuring that the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) rebuilds and supports healthy ecosystems by eliminating effort enhancing subsidies, promoting the implementation of the fisheries control system and collection of scientific data and dedicating at least 25% of the budget to the protection and restoration of marine biodiversity;
  • The European Commission should review the financial allocation for aquaculture under the EMFF as to determine the extent of EU aquaculture financial support delivery to public goods;
  • Adopting legislation at EU level setting normative, action-forcing standards for reducing the noise generated by ships and requiring the use of Best Available Technologies for pile driving and seismic surveys.

Fisheries regulations should support the objectives of the CFP by:

  • Setting fishing rates below Fishing mortality consistent with achieving Maximum Sustainable Yields (MSY) Fmsy for stocks with sufficient scientific data and below the precautionary approach reference point for stocks with limited data to provide a chance to restore and maintain fish stocks above levels capable of producing the maximum sustainable yield;
  • Minimising and where possible eliminating fishing impacts on the wider ecosystem, such as accidental catches of seabirds and seabed destruction;
  • Agreeing on a Technical Measures Regulation which supports the effective management of MPAs; prohibits destructive fisheries and leads to the minimisation and avoidance of unwanted catches;
  • Ensuring that the revised Control Regulation establishes fully-documented fisheries in the EU and develops an effective, harmonised and transparent enforcement system that will facilitate, amongst others, the correct implementation of the landing obligation.

Ensure the implementation of the EU Plastics policy and legal framework by:

  • Putting in place national plans for the EU Plastics Strategy and Single-Use Plastics Directive, including national targets to reduce single-use plastic consumption, and data collection systems on the placing on the market and consumption of single-use plastics;
  • Calling on the European Commission to develop a specific regulation on microplastics with measures to ban these from cosmetics, personal care, detergents and cleaning products;
  • Pushing for improved source pollution controls, including concrete measures set within the Best Available Techniques Reference Document on Textiles Micropollutants from synthetic fibres, silver and other water pollutants.


Human activities are causing unprecedented environmental changes in coastal and marine ecosystems. The following are major threats to sea habitats:

  • pressures from fishing,
  • pollution from land and sea sources,nse coastal urban development and tourism,
  • damage to the sea floor by oil platforms,
  • energy transmission lines and mining activities, 
  • the spread of non-indigenous species, especially by shipping.

All these impacts are likely to be made worse by the changing climate.

Human activities are often concentrated in coastal regions least able to assimilate them and where the adverse effects are most apparent. The main threats to European coastal areas are water pollution and eutrophication (or nutrient enrichment), loss of biological diversity, urban development, landscape deterioration and coastal erosion.

Interesting facts

  • The area of sea under the control (jurisdiction) of EU Member States is larger than the total land area of the EU. Including its outlying regions (territories and entities in the Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean), the EU has the world's largest maritime territory.
  • The EU coastline is 68 000 km long — more than three times longer than that of the United States and almost twice that of Russia. If the EEA member countries Iceland, Norway and Turkey are included, the coastline reaches to 185 000 km long.
  • In the 24 EEA coastal countries, there are 560 000 km2 of coastal zones, corresponding to 13 % of the total land mass of these countries (based on Corine Land Cover data from 2000).
  • Almost half of the EU population lives less than 50 km from the sea; the majority is concentrated in urban areas along the coast. In 2011, 206 million people, or 41 % of the EU population, lived in Europe's coastal regions (data for 2011 from Eurostat).
  • The seaside is Europe's most popular holiday destination. Employing over 3.2 million people, this sector generates EUR 183 billion in gross value added and represents over one third of the maritime economy. As much as 51 % of bed capacity in hotels across Europe is concentrated in coastal regions (European Commission, Coastal and Maritime Tourism).
  • European seas include a wide range of marine and coastal ecosystems, ranging from the stable environment of the deep ocean to highly dynamic coastal waters. These ecosystems provide a home for up to 48 000 species (SOER 2015).
  • Economic assets within 500 metres of the sea have an estimated value of EUR 500 billion to 1000 billion.
  • EU public expenditure on protecting coastlines from the risk of erosion and flooding is expected to reach EUR 5.4 billion a year for the period 1990-2020.

 Environmental challenges

Degradation of marine and coastal ecosystems can be seen in the Baltic, Black and Mediterranean Seas and the North-East Atlantic and, more particularly, Arctic Oceans. Effects on the environment are a consequence of meeting our immediate human needs. However, they impact species and habitats that have evolved over thousands, if not millions, of years — sometimes irreversibly.

These impacts are related to the high and increasing population densities along Europe's coasts, fishing, agricultural and industrial chemical pollution, tourism developments, shipping, renewable energy infrastructures and other maritime activities. Although Europe's seas are productive, they cannot be considered to be healthy, clean or undisturbed.

Key challenges:

  • Despite greatly improved waste water treatment, diffuse nutrient pollution from agriculture remains a major problem in the coastal and marine environment. It causes algal blooms and can lead to widespread oxygen depletion.
  • Concentrations of some heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants in fish and other seafood exceed the limits set for foodstuffs at selected locations in all Europe's seas. Major accidental oil spills have decreased, but oil discharges from regular activities, such as transport and refineries, are still significant. These substances accumulate in the food chain.
  • Contaminants and marine litter are widespread, but our knowledge about their consequences for the ecosystem, and ultimately for human health, remains poorly assessed or understood.
  • Vulnerable areas of the deep sea are at particular risk from the expansion of human activities. Pressure on the sea floor is expected to increase from a wider range of activities, such as bottom trawling, sea bed mining and offshore energy.
  • Overfishing has been decreasing since 2007 in EU Atlantic and Baltic waters, but 41 % of assessed stocks remain fished above maximum sustainable yield. Overfishing is dominant in the Mediterranean and Black Seas.
  • Invasive species, mostly brought in through shipping and the Suez Canal in the Mediterranean Sea, are spread through shipping and aquaculture. They can have devastating consequences for ecosystems and society. The annual economic loss due to aquatic invasive species is estimated to exceed EUR 81 billion globally. 
  • Baltic and Arctic waters are also affected by invasive aquatic species, primarily species introduced from ballast waters but also species migrating northwards because of climate change.
  • The protection of marine and coastal habitats and species by designating coastal and marine sites under Natura 2000 is improving, but progress has been slow and difficult. The patterns of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation seen across all regional seas indicate that many species and habitats are in a poor state. Loss of biodiversity across habitats and species reduces ecosystem resilience and makes marine ecosystems more vulnerable to pressures
  • Tourism, responsible for urban development along the Mediterranean coast, is now becoming a driver of development and an increasing source of pollution on the Black Sea coast too.
  • The effects of climate change are now being seen in all Europe's seas. Climate change is causing sea surface temperatures and sea levels to rise. Marine and coastal species are shifting their geographical and seasonal distributions in response to these changes. The management of fisheries and natural habitats will increasingly have to adapt to these changes to ensure environmental sustainability. The pH of seas will continue to decrease in response to increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. As a result, coral reefs in Europe's overseas territories — known as centres of biodiversity — are threatened by both increasing temperatures and acidification.

Positive trends:

  • The EU and its Member States have responded to marine ecosystem change and broader marine environmental challenges with a wide range of policies and initiatives aiming to protect coastal and marine ecosystems: 
    • Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD),
    • Water Framework Directive (WDF),
    • 2020 Biodiversity Strategy,
    • Birds and Habitats Directives,
    • Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) Directive,,
    • Common Fisheries Policy (CFP),
    • Blue Growth,
    • Integrated Maritime Policy,and
    • the Paris Agreement on Climate Change..
  • Land-based policies that will improve the marine environment have also been adopted:
    • Common Agricultural Policy (CAP),
    • Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD), and
    • the Circular Economy and Climate and Energy packages.
  • Systems for data collection and management have been developed:
    • Copernicus,
    • EMODnet,
    • Water Information System for Europe (WISE),
    • Infrastructure for Spatial Information Europe (INSPIRE), and
    • the European Earth Monitoring Programme (including the Marine Environment Monitoring Service).
  • Assessment tools have been developed to improve access to environmental information and the application of policies. A good example is MAES- Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services.
  • Some marine ecosystems are starting to respond positively to the above initiatives and policies. For example, some marine nature protection and restoration efforts are showing positive local effects on species populations and biodiversity
  • Fish stocks are recovering in northern European seas as a result of the increasing proportion of fishing that is conducted sustainably.
  • Invasions of non-native species arising from aquaculture have been reduced by introducing proper regulation.

These examples show that Europe's seas are still resilient and that it is not beyond our means to help marine ecosystems to recover. They also shows that policy and management measures can make an important difference when properly applied.



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