The assessment covers all European seas and addresses a wide array of issues, setting these in the context of the good environmental status 2020 objective of the EU’s marine strategy. Echoing the language of last year’s Healthy Oceans, Productive Ecosystems (HOPE) conference, it concludes that European seas are productive, but far from healthy. They detail how this threat of degradation endangers not only the new blue economy, but also our very wellbeing.

The EEA report comes at a timely moment, with countries currently putting the policy measures in place that should deliver healthy seas in 2020 under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). In a workshop hosted by Seas At Risk earlier this year, NGOs took stock of progress on its implementation, and concluded that member states have so far displayed far too little ambition.

In its evaluation on progress on the establishment of well-managed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), a precondition for healthy seas, the EEA concludes that Europe’s network is neither coherent nor ecologically representative, especially in offshore areas.So far, 5.9% of Europe’s seas have been protected, meaning there is still quite some way to go to reach the international target of 10% by 2020. The EEA also calls for a significant improvement of management of MPAs, by introducing ‘no-take zones’, for instance. An overview of management effectiveness is still lacking.  

While countries are struggling to get their house in order on the marine environment, the ‘Blue Growth’ push of industrial activities to the sea continues relentlessly. Blue economy is the buzz phrase du jour globally, with emerging sectors such as aquaculture, deep-sea mining, biotechnology and renewable energy being added to long-established ones such as fisheries, shipping, oil and gas drilling and tourism. With Europe’s coastal areas already being overexploited, offshore and deep-sea are becoming more and more part of the EU’s blue economic expansion dreams as well.

The EEA’s assessment brings a stark warning of the effects of the EU’s blue economy ambitions– and the world at large; we risk degrading the oceans’ global life-support function and disrupting the natural benefits the seas provide.

We need to respect the ecological boundaries of Europe’s seas if we want to continue enjoying the benefits we receive. This requires aligning our policy ambitions for economic growth with our policy targets of securing healthy, clean and productive seas. Ultimately, this will entail making fundamental changes in the way we meet our societal needs’, said Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director.

Seas At Risk will work to ensure this warning is received loud and clear by the EU institutions and member states. Earlier in the year, marine NGOs already formulated their priorities in a Blue Manifesto with short and longer term priorities for EU marine and maritime policies. The EEA assessment and its wealth of data and information will hopefully help to advance the policy debate and trigger a rethinking of the Integrated Maritime Policy, which has so far failed to deliver  on its promises of an effective integration of environmental and Blue Growth policies.

Some facts and figures from today’s report:

  • For species and habitats assessed from 2007 to 2012 under the EU’s Habitats Directive, 9% of marine habitats and 7% of marine species assessments were in ‘favourable conservation status’, while 66% of habitat and 27% of species assessments were ‘unfavourable’.
  • Over 650 marine fish species, over 180 marine bird species, five species of sea turtles and almost 40% of the world’s known marine mammals are found in Europe’s seas.
  • Around 320 new non-indigenous species have been observed in Europe’s seas since 2000.
  • The maritime sector is estimated to provide 6.1 million jobs and to generate an economic value of approximately EUR 467 billion.
  • The MPA network in European seas in 2012 covered 5.9% of the EU marine area within 200 nautical miles (nm) of the coast.
  • In less than seven years, EU Member States have to designate the same amount of MPAs in terms of area as has been designated under the marine Natura 2000 network over the last 20 years.
  • The knowledge base on marine biodiversity remains very limited, calling for greater cooperation among EU countries and with other countries bordering the regional seas of Europe.
  • Climate change is already affecting Europe’s marine ecosystems.
  • Hazardous substances are widespread in the marine environment. They can accumulate through the marine food chain and pose health risks to humans.
  • Marine litter, mainly in the form of plastic, is also accumulating in Europe’s seas. Most of the litter comes from land-based activities. Micro-plastics can enter the food web.
  • Underwater noise from human activities (shipping, renewable energy, oil and gas extraction, etc.) is increasing and can have a wide range of impacts on marine life.
  • Signs of improvement are observed in certain pressures, such as fishing and nutrient loading.
  • More than half of the commercial fish stocks assessed are not in good environmental status.
  • Total catches in all fishing regions have been declining in the past ten years. The EU is increasingly dependent on imports of its most widely consumed species: tuna, cod and salmon.