Time to sharpen fisheries management in Baltic Sea marine protected areas

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Proper management of marine protected areas (MPAs) should include fisheries control for the well-being of the marine environment and fishermen, write Hanna Paulomäki and Andrzej Bia?a?.

Hanna Paulomäki is the project manager and Andrzej Bia?a? is the policy advisor at Oceana’s Baltic Sea Office in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Why do countries like Poland lack effective conservation tools for creating protected areas in the country?  Europe’s marine waters are under great threat from man-made pressures, like pollution and overfishing, as well as offshore and coastal development. In practice, the current management systems in place favour short-term economic wins over nature conservation, neglecting sustainable maintenance of natural values. One such recurring trend is overfishing and the use of unsustainable fishing practices, which have led to a steady decline in commercial fish stocks in Europe and resulted in the degradation of marine habitats.

To achieve the environmental targets and to ensure that we reach the goal of good environmental status for our marine waters, decision makers should opt for leveraging the conservation measures for the threatened species and habitats on a community level.

The European Union has an extensive set of environmental legislation to counter this problem. The Habitats Directive and the renewed Common Fisheries Policy require countries to develop fisheries management measures for marine Natura 2000 sites- the core element of EU nature and biodiversity conservation policy. This chimes perfectly with member states’ obligation to reach good environmental status by 2020 and to restore and maintain biodiversity, listed in the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). Regrettably, the current situation shows that the aim for which these directives were created – that is to secure sustainable use of marine resources, restoration and maintenance of all kinds of species and habitats – has not been accomplished. Decision-makers have failed to implement tight enough restrictions for the conservation of natural resources in the EU.

A report released recently by Oceana states that over 30% of all Natura 2000 sites in the Baltic Sea and Kattegat lack any form of management or protection plans, and there is not a single MPA where fisheries are completely banned.

Despite having a vast list of environmental laws, we’ve witnessed a steady decline in some of the most valuable fish stocks. Today, it is estimated that 41% of North East Atlantic stocks and 91% of Mediterranean stocks are overexploited.

Scientists recently recommended the largest cut in Baltic Sea cod catches in years. Why? The western cod stock is not fished sustainably, and the eastern cod stock is in a dire state, consisting mainly of small and skinny fish. The cod stock in Kattegat is in an even worse condition.

Commercial fishing is one of the activities identified by experts as the major threat to species and habitats. That is why well-managed MPAs are an important tool for ensuring long-term survival of valuable and threatened species and habitats. They also play an important role in maintaining and restoring healthy fish stocks by supporting important habitats for fish in their different life stages. If implemented and managed correctly, these areas could produce more and bigger fish compared to areas outside these refuges. Many EU member states are still in the process of developing management plans and measures and we have followed this process closely in many countries, including Poland, where the Natura 2000 network is the most important marine environment protection tool. 

Last year Poland began to develop protection plans for Natura 2000 sites. This is a vital and highly necessary step forward, as it fulfills its obligation to adopt conservation measures for vulnerable habitats and species. Nevertheless, the process itself has become a source of tension in the country where Natura 2000 is seen by local authorities and communities as yet another unnecessary conservation tool, which limits rather than stimulates the development of regions.

According to the Polish Nature Conservation Act, no legal restrictions on potential investments or human activities can be incorporated into the protection plans for Natura 2000 sites. The official communication from the Maritime Office in Szczecin underlines that “any regulations introduced to the plans play solely a role of guidelines or recommendations, and not obligations”. This showcases some major shortcomings of the Natura 2000 network whereby protection of marine areas exists only on paper.

As a result of the deteriorating condition of fisheries, we argue for more stringent actions to be implemented in conservation tools such as the Natura 2000 network in order to prevent a further creation of “paper parks” and to attain the target of good, environmental status by 2020.

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