After two years of preparatory work and negotiations, the Commission presented its proposal for a revised Decision on criteria and methodologies for determining good environmental status of European seas. While the legislation is now clearer and promotes stronger regional cooperation, some important safeguards are still missing to ensure an adequate level of protection of our seas and ocean. The legislation not only lacks an independent process to decide when Good Environmental Status is achieved but also has some inconsistencies with other European environmental policies. Seas At Risk, together with other NGOs, urged the Commission to address these issues.
The objective of the Marine Directive is to reach Good Environmental Status of the European seas and ocean by 2020. This means that oceans and seas should be clean, healthy and productive and different uses of the marine resources should be conducted at a sustainable level.
The standards and the criteria to establish what Good Environmental Status is, were defined in 2010 in a separate piece of European legislation (Decision on criteria and methodological standards on good environmental status of marine waters). However, the criteria turned out to be too complex to be properly implemented and did not always reflect the reality of marine conservation and management. As a consequence, they needed to be revised. After a 2-year process consulting Member States, experts and, on occasions, stakeholders, the Commission put the revised Decision on Good Environmental Status to public consultation in September-October. Seas At Risk coordinated a response of European environmental NGOs.
On the positive side, the revised list of criteria and standards is clearer and it increases chances of having a similar level of protection across European seas. Member States are encouraged to work more closely together, either in the context of the Regional Sea Conventions or in EU-level working groups. However, Seas At Risk and other NGOs believe that the text still has some fundamental shortcomings.
The main issue is the lack of an independent process to decide if Good Environmental Status is achieved. For the moment, Member States are free to set their own thresholds between what is considered ‘good status’ and what is considered ‘not good status’ – although they are encouraged to do this in coordination with their neighbours. An independent assessment is however not foreseen. To avoid this problem, NGOs suggests introducing safeguards to ensure that the thresholds set by Member States’ are based on the best available science, based on the precautionary principle and assessed and approved by the Commission.
NGOs also found inconsistencies of the revised Decision with other EU environmental policies. For instance, if the text is left as it is, Member States will be able to allow the destruction of a certain proportion of habitats due to a human activity (like bottom trawling). This goes against the objectives set by the EU Biodiversity strategy (which aims to halt biodiversity loss) as well as the spirit of the Marine Directive itself which requires that marine biodiversity is maintained and improved.