2017 is certainly putting oceans in the policy spotlight. In the build up to the UN Ocean conference and the Our Ocean conference, declarations by the Commission and statements by the Environmental Council, the European Parliament and the European Economic and Social Committee call for sustainable use of the oceans, highlight the importance of oceans for climate change, and re-affirm the EU’s commitment to enhancing ‘blue’ socioeconomic growth. The challenge will be to reconcile these often opposing ambitions.

On the occasion of the Informal Ministerial Meeting in Valletta Malta, on 20 April 2017, European Ministers responsible for the Integrated Maritime Policy, called on the EU and its Member States to step up efforts to protect the oceans and seas from adverse consequences and impacts of climate change. In the ‘Valletta Declaration’, the Ministers also urge to ensure that the pressure from human activities in European seas is kept within levels compatible with the achievement of good environmental status by 2020 as outlined in the Marine Directive, among others through Maritime Spatial Planning. With the Marine Directive on the road to its next implementation cycle, this is a more than welcome message, which hopefully will pave the path to a much stronger future implementation of the Directive. The Declaration also underlines the importance of protecting, restoring and maintaining the resilience of marine ecosystems as this can ensure that they are better placed to overcome the challenges posed by climate change, while contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation. The ministers also re-affirmed their support to a sustainable ‘blue economy’ concept, calling for further integrating blue growth into the discussions on the implementation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 14, which addresses sustainable use and conservation of oceans and seas. This constitutes an important signal to the upcoming UN Ocean conference which focuses on the Sustainable Development Goal 14.

At the informal meeting of Environment Ministers 24-25 April, Ministers  called for enhanced protection of the marine environment, highlighting that healthy marine ecosystems are crucial to ensure resilience against climate change. They stressed the importance of the development of a circular economy and the need to reduce plastic usage to prevent marine litter.

On 26 April, the European Parliament’s Intergroup on Seas, Rivers, Islands and Coastal Areas (Searica) issued a declaration reaffirming the central role of seas and oceans for climate change and encouraging the EU to continue strengthening its knowledge and understanding of our seas and oceans. Finally, the European Economic and Social Committee adopted, at the end of March, an opinion on international ocean governance, recalling the dangers of new types of exploitation in the sea, such as deep-sea mining, without regard for environmental consequences for marine conservation. It calls for urgent action to improve international ocean governance so that it can ensure the sustainable management of marine resources. The above built on the Commission’s recent Report on the Blue Growth Strategy: Towards more sustainable growth and jobs in the blue economy, as well as the Communication ‘Initiative for the sustainable development of the blue economy in the western Mediterranean’ which concludes that the region is still lacking appropriate awareness, dissemination and cross-sectorial evidence-based policymaking.

All of these are nice words on paper but the devil lies in the details of the implementation. Can healthy seas and economic growth really be compatible? The addition of the word ‘sustainable’ is not sufficient to guarantee that our activities at sea will not damage oceanic ecosystems. For instance, considering deep-sea mining as one of the five priority areas of Blue Growth is not compatible with the image of sustainability the Commission wants to project, as we have already explained here. We need to change the way we think about the sea, as the successor to land for human overexploitation. We need to seriously consider how we can make use of some of the resources the sea provides us, in a really sustainable way, while allowing the sea and all of its components to thrive. 


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