European Commission report finds key elements missing from Member State plans for sustainable seas

Posted on 04 May 2022

To achieve the European Green Deal, deliver sustainable blue economies and secure thriving seas, Member States must radically step up their maritime plans
Yesterday, the European Commission published its assessment on implementation of the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive (MSPD) [1] across the EU. 

While the report highlights examples of best practice from some Member States and their national maritime plans, overall gaps across planning processes signal an urgent need for improvement. 

The key challenges identified by the assessment lie with successfully adopting an ecosystem-based approach [2] to maritime planning, how to prioritise which maritime sectors are allocated space at sea for their operations, and designating sufficient space for both various economic activities and achieving diverse policy objectives while simultaneously safeguarding the environment.

Dr Antonia Leroy, Head of Ocean Policy at the WWF European Policy Office said, “We applaud the Commission’s call for Member States to better reflect EU Green Deal ambitions in their national maritime plans. To that end, improved guidance from the Commission on the importance of an ecosystem-based approach is now essential, especially for those Member States who remain without any plan whatsoever. Human activities, in particular the development of offshore renewable energy, and ocean health go hand in hand: as the world's largest carbon sink, thriving oceanic ecosystems are essential to mitigate the climate crisis.”

Noteworthy findings include:
  • Inadequate marine and maritime data collection and reporting across the bloc, signalling potential (and crucial) gaps in Member State understanding of how human activities impact ecologically-sensitive areas. WWF welcomes the Commission highlighting this issue, as robust data is essential for adaptive resource management and improving maritime planning over time.
  • Absence of cooperation across Member State borders and between EU and non-EU countries. WWF welcomes the Commission’s language around transboundary cooperation as being pivotal for aligning national maritime plans with energy and climate plans.
  • Space dedicated to nature protection in some Member States is being razed due to high demand for new and expanding sectors, including offshore renewable energy which is currently being rapidly expanded in the EU. While the role of sea space to meet renewable energy goals via offshore renewables is clear, WWF is advocating for new maritime developments to not come at the cost of marine protection or restoration. 
  • The Commission emphasises the importance of an ecosystem-based approach to maritime spatial planning, stating it has the potential to be “an enabler of the European Green Deal”. While the report found that all published national maritime spatial plans made reference to an ecosystem-based approach, its adoption and impact in final plans varied across Member States. Failure to embrace an ecosystem-based approach puts maritime development at risk of further damaging marine ecosystems and worsening the climate crisis. 

 The Commission’s findings echo a recent WWF assessment of implementation of the MSPD in the Baltic which found that Member States are failing to adequately reflect the goals of the European Green Deal in their national maritime plans, and emphasised the importance of cooperation across disciplines and regions to ensure a balance between people and nature. 

National plans that meet all requirements of the MSPD and wholly embrace an ecosystem-based approach in their design are critical for supporting a sustainable EU blue economy and safeguarding the wellbeing of the wildlife and people in marine and coastal areas.

  1.  Among numerous European policies that aim to secure a sustainable balance for marine spaces and resources is the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive (MSPD, 2014/89/EU). The MSPD was developed to provide an integrated planning and adaptive approach to how the EU and its Member States manage human-led activities in their waters. 

    Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP) is a future-oriented process that considers all economic sectors and ecological factors related to a marine area and allocates space, both geographically and temporally, to different activities and people whose livelihoods are tied to our seas for the purpose of ensuring a long-term sustainable balance between people and nature.

    The MSPD set 31 March 2021 as the deadline for Member States to present their maritime spatial plans to  the European Commission. The objective of these plans is to detail a nation’s strategies for the sustainable management of their marine areas and resources.
  2. WWF advocates for an ecosystem-based approach (EBA) to MSP, which views maritime spaces  as integrated systems that provide various resources and services to both people and the planet, and acknowledges that ecosystems have a limited carrying capacity to remain healthy against human pressures. An EBA to MSP can transform how sea spaces are accessed and managed. It does so by increasing national and regional abilities to integrate and adapt to  multi-sectoral changes, thus delivering sustainable economic benefits within oceanic boundaries.