European marine spatial planning policies towards the good environmental status of our seas are veering off course?

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The European Environment Agency provides independent scientific assessments and advice to the European Commission and European Parliament. It's recent European Environment — State and Outlook 2015 (SOER 2015) report highlights some worrying issues and trends, particularly for the marine environment (see briefing), e.g.

  • "Across all of Europe's regional seas, marine biodiversity is in poor condition: only 7% of marine species assessments and 9% of marine habitat assessments indicate 'favourable conservation status'
  • The marine Natura 2000 network of MPAs protected under EU law covers just 4% of EU seas, whilst MPAs protected under national law cover another 1.9% of EU seas, the total of 5.9% MPA coverage falling far short of the Convention on Biological Diversity target for 10% MPA coverage by 2020. In less than 6 years, European countries need to designate the same area of MPAs as has been designated under the marine Natura 2000 network over the last 20 years if this target is to be met;
  • The low proportion of MPA features in favourable conservation status (see 1st point above) indicates that the existing network of MPAs is critically lacking in effectiveness, as well as in coverage;
  • Whilst the number of assessed fish stocks in EU Atlantic and Baltic waters fished above their maximum sustainable yield (MSY) fell from 94% in 2007 to 39% in 2013, there was a slight increase in the proportion of overexploited stocks in these seas to 41% in 2014, and 91% of the assessed stocks in Mediterranean Sea and 5 out of 7 of the assessed stocks in the Black Sea are being fished over MSY"

In the face of these worrying trends, and with the deadline for restoring Europe's seas to Good Environmental Status by 2020 under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD 2008) looming, it would be reasonable to assume that the European Commission's maritime policies would be steered towards marine conservation priorities as a matter of urgency. Unfortunately, this is far from the case, in fact the policies seem to be veering off course towards blue growth, as indicated by a number of recent developments:-

  • The EC's recent public consultation on ocean governance appears to be more focused on promoting the growth of the maritime economy of European countries (i.e. blue growth) than on marine conservation and environmental protection, the latter being only implicitly mentioned under the headings of 'Responsibility' and 'Sustainability', presumably (see figure below);
  • The recent appointment of a commissioner with an unprecedentedly broad brief, that includes both the environment ministry (DG Environment) and the maritime and fisheries ministry (DG MARE), where each of these ministries previously had a separate commissioner. Whilst this could potentially improve integration, concerns that this could reinforce the focus on economic blue growth at the expense of the health of marine ecosystems are exacerbated by the fact that the new commissioner must report directly to and liaise closely with the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, and that whenever he is asked a question about biodiversity conservation, his answers focus mainly on sustainable development and blue growth;
  • Such concerns are also reinforced by the letter announcing this appointment, which states that a priority for the new Commissioner will be an overhaul of the Habitats and Birds Directives which legally underpin the Natura 2000 network of MPAs, to ensure these directives are modern and 'fit for purpose'. It also assumes that this legal framework for conservation is 'complete and mature' when the lists of designated sites are still being completed and there is an urgent need to improve the protection afforded to these designations, as the above figures indicate. The appointment letter otherwise repeatedly highlights blue growth as a priority!

There appears to be growing tensions between policies that focus on an ecosystem-based approach (MSFD, Birds/Habitats Directives, etc) and policies that focus on blue growth, as we have previously discussed at length (Qiu and Jones 2013 [1)]. The recent Maritime Spatial Planning Directive (2014) has arguably increased these tensions, as it's main agenda is to promote blue growth, along with the Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP) that this directive legally underpins.

Why does all this matter? The tensions between these policies and the recent prioritisation of blue growth are a major worry, as they are symptomatic of the wider growing focus on economic development in the wake of the global financial crisis (2007-08). They also reflect a wider political agenda across the European Union whereby the EC is seen as a body that should interfere less with the decisions taken by member states, including decisions related to whether economic development priorities should over-ride environmental protection priorities. Reducing such interference could be key to the re-negotiation of the balance of powers between the EC and its constituent member states, which many see as vital to the future of the European Union.

These developments at an EU level reflect a wider worrying trend at an international level whereby integrated-use focused maritime spatial planning (MSP) is evolving into a model which is in competition to ecosystem-based marine spatial planning, i.e. the two are drifting apart and diverging from their co-evolutionary roots and becoming competitors.This is discussed further in a recent presentation MPAs & MSP: coevolution or competition? This is certainly a worry in Europe, as it would seem European maritime policy is veering off course towards an integrated-use model of maritime spatial planning in which ecosystem protection/restoration through measures such as MPAs to achieve good environmental status is demoted to just another sectoral priority, with trade-offs consistently steered towards economic development. It could also be reflective of a wider worrying trend whereby integrated-use maritime spatial planning becomes the focus rather than ecosystem-based marine spatial planning (top tip - look at which of these words are being used and whether they reflect this divergence).

We need to ensure that marine spatial planning co-evolves and converges with MPAs and wider environmental protection measures to achieve a balance between marine ecosystem protection and maritime blue growth, and that integrated-use maritime spatial planning does not become a competitor to and diverge from an ecosystem-based marine spatial planning approach. EB-MSP approaches could include both sustainable blue growth and effectively governed MPAs. We need both, but the worry is that MSP is veering off course and that MPAs are sinking down the agenda, along with the health of the marine ecosystems that they help protect?

I am certainly not alone in these concerns. A recent analysis of the State of Europe's Seas by the European Environment Agency also concludes that "a closer coupling between our ambitions for 'Blue Growth' and 'productive' seas on one hand and our ambitions for 'healthy' and 'clean' seas on the other is needed" (EEA 2015). A closer coupling and a change of course towards Good Environmental Status, but who is at the helm, Mr Vella, and where are we headed?

Figure from the EC's Public Consultation on Ocean Governance: spot the environment?

[1] Qiu W. and Jones P.J.S. (2013) The Emerging Policy Landscape for Marine Spatial Planning in Europe. Marine Policy 39(1), 182-190. Open access paper available at