EU Plans to Clean Marine Environment in 15 Years

BRUSSELS, Belgium, October 25, 2005 (ENS) - The European Commission has proposed a new strategy to ensure that all EU marine waters are environmentally healthy within 15 years. Loss of marine biodiversity due to contamination by dangerous substances, excess nutrients, the impact of commercial fishing, and effects of climate change are the major problems outlined by the Commission that the strategy is supposed to address. Environmental groups called the plan inadequate.

Presented Monday, the Thematic Strategy on the Protection and Conservation of the Marine Environment aims to ensure that all EU marine waters are environmentally healthy by 2021.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said, “Europe’s seas and oceans make a huge contribution to our quality of life and our economic prosperity, but they are deteriorating because of over-exploitation, pollution, climate change and a range of other factors."

"This is an area where there is a strong need for a European overarching and integrated approach," Dimas said. "We want to ensure that European citizens today and in the future are able to benefit from seas and oceans that are safe, clean, healthy and rich in nature."

The evidence of the deterioration of the marine environment continues to accumulate, pointing to potentially irreversible changes – as illustrated by the poor state of certain fish stocks in Europe or the effects of eutrophication on the marine ecology of the Baltic Sea.

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Spanish tuna boat in the Bay of Biscay, Atlantic Ocean (Photo by Jose Cort courtesy NOAA)
The current deterioration of the marine environment and the associated erosion of its ecological capital, jeopardizes the generation of wealth and employment opportunities derived from Europe’s oceans and seas, such as fisheries and tourism, the Commission warned.

The Commission has developed an integrated policy framework to help deal with the pressures and negative impacts on the marine environment. Dimas says the strategy lays down clear operational guidelines on how to achieve good environmental status for all of the EU’s marine areas by 2021.

But the new marine strategy was immediately criticized by Europe's largest environmental groups. BirdLife International, Greenpeace, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Oceana, Seas At Risk, WWF, the Fisheries Secretariat and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), which represents 143 member organizations in 31 countries, called the "desperately inadequate."

The groups say they regret that the strategy contains no binding commitment to protect Europe’s seas, saying "the protection of marine habitats and biodiversity is essential for the future of the marine ecosystems and the fisheries sector."

The environmental groups agree that the marine waters are in bad shape. Chronic overfishing has placed 38 of 43 fish stocks at risk, and hundreds of thousands of tons of oil are discharged every year into European waters, they point out.

The proposal was expected to fill a gap in the EU environmental policy, which is focused on land. "But the Commission’s text falls short," the groups said. "It is now the responsibility of the European Parliament and Council to set legally binding objectives within this Directive, including a clear definition of what constitutes a healthy sea."

The Commission says they strategy will build upon what has been achieved so far at all levels of governance to protect Europe’s seas.

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Fishing boat at the mouth of England's River Tees which empties into the North Sea (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
The 25 EU member states share responsibility for the Baltic Sea, the Northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, each of which has its own distinctive environmental characteristics.

To take account of regional differences, the common objectives and methods set forth in the Commission proposal are to be implemented at the level of marine regions. Member states sharing a marine area will be responsible for working in close cooperation to develop plans designed to ensure good environmental status in their marine waters, Dimas explained.

The member states' plans are to include a detailed assessment of the state of the environment, defining what achieving good environmental status means in the context of each regional sea. They will also contain clear environmental targets and monitoring programs.

No specific management measures will be set down at EU level, but national plans must be checked and approved by the Commission.

Member states share marine areas with countries that are not members of the European Union and an important part of achieving good environmental status will involve close co-operation with these third countries, within the framework of existing regional seas conventions, Dimas said.

Each member state will draw up a program of cost-effective measures aimed at delivering good environmental status of the marine environment. Impact assessments, including detailed cost-benefit analyses of the measures proposed, will be required prior to the introduction of any new measure. The national programs must be approved by the Commission.

The marine strategy is one of seven Thematic Strategies the Commission is required to propose under the EU’s Sixth Environmental Action Programme. The other strategies will cover air pollution, waste prevention and recycling, sustainable use of resources, soils, pesticides and the urban environment.

The air pollution strategy was presented on September 21, 2005 http://europa.eu.int/comm/environment/water/marine.htm

The other Strategies are due to be presented over the next few months.

The marine strategy is set out in a Communication, accompanied by a proposal for a Directive and the analysis underpinning the development of the strategy is contained in an accompanying Impact Assessment.

The full marine strategy is available at: http://158.166.167.18:8080/comm/environment/water/marine.htm