North Sea and North-East Atlantic Member States fail to plan for a sustainable future in their seas

Posted on 25 October 2022

National plans in these regions are inadequate to secure a sustainable EU blue economy and nature recovery.
WWF has analysed the maritime spatial plans of nine Member States in one of the most biologically productive and most disturbed marine areas in the world - the North Sea -, and in the EU’s largest regional sea hosting its biggest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) - the North-East Atlantic Ocean. 
No Member State’s plan successfully addresses the temporal and spatial uncertainties of climate change, despite elevated sea temperatures already disrupting harvests of Atlantic mackerel and salmon between 1989 and 2017 [1]. It is particularly striking for France, which had the largest seafood production from wild-capture fisheries and aquaculture in the EU in 2019 alongside Spain, to omit any measures to retain seafloor integrity and essential fish habitats in its plan. Climate change-related warming will most likely continue to affect the dispersion of commercially-important fish species, with sharp declines having been recently observed in both French and Spanish North-East Atlantic fisheries [2]. 
In other country-specific results, over 50% of Europe’s largest undivided EEZ, Portugal, remains without a plan to sustainably manage maritime activities. With the national government’s approval still pending, no maritime spatial plan is currently being implemented in Spanish waters. While France, which boasts Europe’s largest EEZ, has no plan for its outermost regions or overseas countries and territories. 
“The science is clear: the climate and biodiversity crises are affecting fisheries in the world’s largest seafood market and have been for some time. It is colossally short-sighted of Member States whose economies depend on healthy seas to ignore this reality in how they manage their marine areas - it’s irresponsible both to those directly employed in the sector and to those employed along the supply chain. Radical rethinking is needed in future planning processes to mitigate both crises and secure our blue economies”, said Dr. Antonia Leroy, Head of Ocean Policy at WWF European Policy Office.
Positively, all North Sea Member States designated sufficient space for offshore renewable energy development to fulfil the EU's climate-neutrality commitments for 2030 and are looking into ways of expanding these areas further. In the case of Belgium, however, offshore wind farm development is permitted within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that were previously being considered to support the EU Biodiversity Strategy target to strictly-protect at least 10% of marine areas, where human activities are rigorously controlled and limited. Similarly, Germany has published plans to build offshore wind farms in the Dogger Bank, which includes Natura 2000 sites protected under the Habitats Directive. Building such large infrastructure contradicts the conservation efforts associated with MPAs, which focus on reducing human pressures and improving ecosystemic resilience to climate change.
In the North-East Atlantic, no Member State considered the impacts of wind farm infrastructure development on marine ecosystems, nor detailed which areas could be constituted as “go-to areas” for offshore wind and ocean energy production. 
“The North Sea is on track to accommodate the largest share of offshore wind generation in the EU, which is critical to achieve climate-neutrality by 2040. However, these projects must not derail their very intention to mitigate the climate crisis. Renewable energy and nature recovery are two sides of the same coin when it comes to the role of our ocean for climate action, as it is our planet’s largest carbon sink and marine ecosystems buffer our coastlines against increasing extreme weather. Every alternative must be explored before planning offshore renewables in ecologically-sensitive areas”, said Helena Rodrigues, Ocean Policy Officer at the WWF European Policy Office and lead author of the reports.
Overall, both the North-East Atlantic and North Sea nations are failing to integrate nature protection and restoration in their maritime strategies, both of which are essential to sustain key sectors of the EU blue economy including fisheries and tourism, as well as improve coastal resilience to climate change. No Atlantic national plan included a cumulative impact assessment (CIA) of all at-sea activities, meaning not a single EU country is currently working to ensure that the combined effects of maritime sectors in the region remain within sustainable limits for oceanic ecosystems. Meanwhile, all Member States assessed across both regions have failed to designate areas to meet the minimum 30% MPA and 10% strict-protection targets of the EU Biodiversity Strategy. 
“The climate emergency and the staggering loss of wildlife in our seas are intertwined and need to be jointly addressed”, added Dr. Antonia Leroy. “Since these national plans stay in place for at least six years, failure to put nature at the heart of how we strategise and manage our at-sea activities will make it increasingly difficult for the EU to overcome these dual crises.”
WWF is calling for improved regional cooperation on marine issues. The Regional Sea Convention OSPAR, which includes non-EU states, has a key role to play in both sea basins and working groups must ensure that national plans are coherent and coordinated across both regions. “Collaborative approaches are essential for developing national plans that consider the cumulative impacts of maritime activities on nature and people, both within national waters and in those of neighbouring countries. MSP is the tool to keep nature and climate goals moving hand-in-hand, and deliver resilient blue economies”, concluded Dr. Leroy
About Maritime Spatial Planning
All EU Member States are legally-obliged under the EU Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP) Directive to consider their economic activities and the ecological factors related to their marine areas to then allocate space, geographically and over time, to different sectors with the aim of ensuring long-term sustainability. 
About the assessments
A total of nine maritime spatial plans belonging to eight EU Member States — Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden — were reviewed to determine the degree to which they are ecosystem-based.
A core element of WWF’s work has been translating the EU’s MSP Directive’s requirements into a set of 33 measurable indicators across four categories, upon which the assessment was based. A national maritime spatial plan is considered to be successfully delivering an ecosystem-based approach to MSP once all indicators are achieved (i.e., scoring 100%).
Europe’s largest and busiest sea basins
The North-East Atlantic Ocean hosts Europe's largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It includes both Europe’s largest undivided EEZ, Portugal, but also France, whose outermost regions and districts cross various continents to form the world’s largest EEZ. Fisheries and pollution from human activities stand as the largest threats to biodiversity in the region. High shipping density, including cargo, fishing and passenger operations, has increased to such an extent that it now traverses 73% of MPAs. Lost and/or discarded fishing gear is one of the top three most common types of litter found on beaches in the region. In 2017, the European Environment Agency found nearly a fifth of assessed fish stocks failed to meet criteria for good environmental status and in its 2019 assessment of ecosystemic conditions in Europe's seas (examining contamination, eutrophication and biodiversity), the Agency classified 74.2% of the North-East Atlantic as falling under “problem areas”.
As a result of being surrounded by some of the largest world economies, the North Sea has become one of the most disturbed and traversed seas in the world. Its coast is the site of two of the world's largest ports, Rotterdam and Hamburg. Multiple and overlapping maritime activities - including fisheries, aquaculture, shipping, oil and gas extraction, wind energy development, sand and gravel extraction, harbours and coastal development - compete for limited marine space and resources, from the surface to the seafloor, putting enormous pressure on marine ecosystems. Few areas of the seabed remain in their natural state, compromising the very resources on which these industries depend. In 2019, while it was estimated that 22% of North Sea waters were designated as MPAs, fewer than half of these areas (47%) had management plans for implementing and monitoring protection.
EU outermost regions and overseas countries and territories:
Portugal was one of the first Member States to undertake the MSP process, but the country is missing a specific plan for the Azores archipelago, leaving over 50% of Portuguese waters without a plan to sustainably manage maritime activities. At the time of its development, MSP in Portugal’s outermost regions was the responsibility of regional governments and the Azores never embarked on the process. However, In July 2022, the Portuguese Constitutional Court mandated the central government with the exclusive responsibility for the implementation of EU maritime Directives, bypassing regional authorities' influence over the matter. This ruling aligns with WWF's belief that a centralised approach improves the coherence and connectivity of MSP across all national waters. At the time of preparing this report, the Azores MSP process has entered the design and stakeholder consultation phases, where spatial designations of maritime activities are discussed by all interested parties and where any arising conflicts are mitigated. 
Spain is under an EU infringement procedure for failing to deliver its plan to the European Commission within the MSPD deadline. However, the complexity of adopting this centralised approach that covers both continental Europe and the Canary Islands has been cited as a key reason for delays and it should be noted that Spain's case is significantly unlike other Member States under infringement procedures, such as Greece, which has yet to begin the MSP process.
None of the MSP processes for France’s outermost regions or overseas countries and territories have been finalised, leaving the majority of the world’s largest EEZ without an MSP strategy.
  1. Vollset, K. W., Urdal, K., Utne, K., Thorstad, E. B., Sægrov, H., Raunsgard, A., Skagseth, Ø. Lennox, R. J., Østborg, G. M., Ugedal, O., Jensen, A. J., Bolstad, G. H., & Fiske, P. (2022). Ecological regime shift in the northeast Atlantic Ocean revealed from the unprecedented reduction in marine growth of Atlantic Salmon, Science Advances, 8 (9), 
  2. Eurostat, Fisheries Statistics, accessed in August 2022,
A blue and a red cutter with a flock of seagulls on the North Sea in the sun with wind generators in the background
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