EU sea protection strategy fails to impress

The Commission proposes EU nations draw up national programmes to keep European seas clean, safe from oil spills and healthy. Environmental groups say the strategy is “inadequate” and call for binding EU measures.

Pollution at sea, including the degradation of ecosystems and coastlines due to overfishing, oil spills, agriculture and climate change, are among the threats that the Commission wishes to address in a new strategy unveiled on 24 October.

The strategy is expected to cost the EU and its member states an annual 90 million euros during the first two years of implementation and an annual 70 million euros after that.

But Environment Commissioner Dimas indicated the benefits would be “many more times the costs,” for example in making fisheries more sustainable. For instance, strengthened maritime safety standards could save billions in clean up costs due to oil spillage and would impact positively on tourism. As an example, the Commission estimates that the Prestige disaster alone cost €5 billion for the fishing and tourism industries.

High environmental standards for oil and gas extraction could be imposed on companies wanting to exploit new fields. Agriculture and urban waste water are also areas where progress would still need to be made (e.g.: excess nitrogen discharges and phosphorous causing alga bloom in recreational areas or contaminating aquaculture).

Overall, the strategy aims for a “good environmental status” of Europe’s seas and oceans by 2021. To achieve that, it proposes an EU directive requires member states to draw up and implement national programmes in coordination with other nations which share the same waters. Under the draft directive, national programmes would need to be approved by the Commission while cooperation with countries outside the EU would be encouraged within the framework of existing conventions. The so-called “marine regions” in the draft directive have been defined as: 

  • The Baltic sea: Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Germany; and Russia
  • The North Atlantic Ocean: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Portugal and Spain; Iceland and Norway
  • The Mediterranean Sea: Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Greece, Cyprus and Malta; and the southern and Eastern Mediterranean rim

The following implementation timetable is suggested for the directive:

  • once adopted, member states will establish a national programme to be approved by the Commission
  • within 4 years after entry into force, member states to assess the environmental status of waters concerned;
  • within 5 years after entry into force, member states to establish a series of environmental targets;
  • within 6 years after entry into force, member states to establish a monitoring programme to measure progress;
  • by 2016: member states to develop a programme of measures to be operational by 2018 at the latest

Presenting the new strategy on 24 October, Environment Commissioner Stavros 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".

A coalition of eight environmental groups criticised the Commission strategy as being "desperately inadequate" to deal with issues such as pollution at sea and overfishing. In a joint statement, BirdLife International, Greenpeace, IFAW, Oceana, Seas At Risk, WWF, the Fisheries Secretariat and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said the strategy failed to fill the gap in the EU environmental policy, which remains land-focused.

According to the group, "chronic overfishing" in EU waters is rampant and already affect 38 of 43 identified stocks. Moreover, it says the strategy fails to address the "hundreds of thousands of tonnes of oil" which are discharged every year into European waters. 

"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 group said. 

The 'Thematic Strategy on the Protection and Conservation of the Marine Environment' is one of the seven due to be presented by Commissioner Dimas before the end of the year as part of the 6th environmental action programme of 2002 (see EURACTIV LinksDossier).

The thematic strategy forms the environmental chapter of an even broader sea and coast land policy that the Commission is preparing to table in 2006 (EURACTIV, 3 March 2005).

  • The directive is now being transmitted to the EU Council and Parliament for approval by (2-3 year process on average)
  • 2006: Commission to present a broader EU maritime policy

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