The EU is not on track for a sustainable blue future

Posted on 26 October 2022

WWF analyses of 17 coastal Member States' maritime strategies reveal none are on course to meet EU climate and nature goals.

The Baltic Sea 

MSP in the Baltic region has only been partly successful: integration of an ecosystem-based approach - which maintains ecosystems in a healthy, productive and resilient condition against human pressures - is uneven across Member States.

When put together, the areas Member States have designated for marine protection do not abide by the EU Biodiversity Strategy target of protecting at least 30% of marine and coastal areas, of which 10% should be strictly protected (meaning human access and impacts are strictly controlled and limited). Furthermore, not one Member State plan sets aside space for nature restoration activities, and only two countries have partially addressed temporal and spatial uncertainties in the era of climate change.

Where national plans have designated space for offshore renewable energy, which is necessary for achieving climate neutrality by 2040 as per the European Green Deal, the majority of countries failed to consider the impacts of offshore renewable energy infrastructure on ecosystems and wildlife. 

The North Sea

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. 

However, in Belgium, 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. Nonetheless, the region is also staging a unique agreement between wind developers, civil society and the government that focuses not only on developing offshore wind outside of MPAs but also on investing in restoring vulnerable ecosystems. 

No country’s plan is currently delivering on all the goals of the EU Biodiversity Strategy. This includes failure by all Member States to designate adequate and effective MPAs covering at least 30% of national waters, when the deadline to achieve this level of protection is eight years away.

Further, maritime plans in the North Sea are failing to address the temporal and spatial uncertainties of climate change. Climate change-related warming of the sea basin will most likely affect the dispersion of commercially-important fish species and increase existing eutrophication effects, including low oxygen concentrations that can lead to dead zones. The oversight of this reality in the national plans could jeopardise the future of important sectors, such as fisheries.

The North-East Atlantic Ocean

Overall, the North-East Atlantic region is faring poorly with regards to nature protection and restoration of marine ecosystems, which are essential to sustain blue economies in the region and improve coastal resilience to climate change. With no national maritime spatial plans including a cumulative impact assessment (CIA) of all at-sea activities, not a single country is currently working to ensure that the combined effects of maritime sectors remain within the ocean’s carrying capacity. CIAs are essential to compare the impacts of different human activities, select spatial allocations that minimise harmful impacts on marine habitats and species, and ensure the good environmental status of EU seas over time. Without a CIA, it’s not possible to claim human activities have been planned in a truly sustainable way.

There is a crucial lack of regional cooperation on marine issues, with no country considering how its national plan is interconnected with and impacts other nations, both within and outside EU borders. Cross-border cooperation is essential for a successful approach to sea basin planning that considers how human pressures cumulatively impact transboundary marine mammal corridors and the migration of commercially important fish species.

Positively, all Member States in this region have developed their MSP based on broad scientific knowledge, which is essential for defining baselines and developing standards to monitor and evaluate national performance on key indicators over time. These results show the region was able to deliver science-based and forward-looking plans that are likely to evolve as new data becomes available, which is essential for delivering on critical pieces of EU environmental legislation such as the Biodiversity Strategy and REPowerEU.

The Mediterranean

Five out of eight Mediterranean Member States have yet to fully implement the MSPD, meaning WWF is still unable to complete an assessment of the sea basin. 

The result is that the greater part of this sea basin, which is critical to the EU blue economy and to marine biodiversity, has no long-term plan, including for essential sectors like tourism and fisheries, and expansion of newer ones like offshore wind.

Mediterranean leaders must urgently speed up their MSP process.

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.

Way forward

Continued failure to adopt an ecosystem-based approach to Maritime Spatial Planning will make it increasingly difficult for the EU and its neighbours to overcome the impacts of climate change.

WWF is calling for all EU Member States to ensure their maritime spatial plans secure sufficient space for nature to recover and thrive. This includes leaving offshore renewable energy development out of MPAs and establishing transboundary cooperation between Member States to reduce harmful impacts to nature from this type of infrastructure. 

It is crucial for national plans to not only dedicate more space to nature via effectively managed MPAs that cover at least 30% of national waters, with at least 10% under strict protection, but also adopt a regional approach to monitoring the cumulative impacts of all human activities.

Finally, stakeholders must be involved and consulted in all phases of MSP, with national plans covering all sea areas and continuously adapted as new data becomes available and new pieces of legislation come into force. In the Baltic, the HELCOM Regional Sea Convention must continue to harmonise state-level approaches to maritime planning in a publicly accessible and transparent way. In the North Sea and North-East Atlantic, transboundary cooperation and collaboration to planning can be developed under the influence of the Regional Sea Convention OSPAR, which includes non-EU states, such as the
UK and Norway.