Sustainable planning for the largest EU marine areas is fractured and incomplete – WWF report

Posted on May, 07 2024

Despite making up the majority of European waters, the EU’s outermost regions are falling behind implementation of maritime and environmental policies to protect biodiversity and vulnerable communities against climate change.
WWF’s analysis of maritime spatial planning (MSP)* in the EU outermost regions reveals that national plans are misaligned with the European Green Deal goals, lacking the necessary coherence and coordination urgently needed to meet the EU's biodiversity and climate objectives effectively. 

Where plans do exist - in the cases of the Canary Islands [1], Madeira [2] and the French outermost regions [3] -, engagement with local stakeholders has been inadequate to ensure plans are robustly developed and publicly supported, strategies to increase marine protection remain insufficient to secure nature recovery, and the calibre of long-term planning of offshore renewable energy all put the sustainable blue economies of these nations at risk. The findings underscore the importance of MSP processes in regions that not only encompass the majority of European waters, but who stand on the frontlines of the impacts of climate change and biodiversity collapse.

"With their waters forming the majority of the EU marine area and their communities facing increasingly
intense and frequent climate disasters, the need for coherent and coordinated processes to sustainably manage the farthest reaches of EU territories is more essential than ever," said Helena Rodrigues, Ocean Policy Officer at the WWF European Policy Office and lead author of WWF’s assessments of maritime spatial planning in the EU. "This hinges on overcoming a lack of human and financial resources, limited public awareness of the importance of planning our sea spaces and, crucially, insufficient interest in meaningful stakeholder engagement and cross-border cooperation."

The success of MSP is particularly crucial in the outermost regions, which often lack robust scientific data on their diverse ecosystems. Addressing this knowledge gap is essential to bolster other EU policies including those pertaining to nature, climate, energy and trade legislation.

A nearly-complete picture
With this latest report, WWF has now assessed the status of MSP in four EU sea basins and the EU outermost regions. The results are clear: much more work is needed to meet the EU’s climate and nature goals.

“There is no ‘green’ without ‘blue’,” said Dr Antonia Leroy, Head of Ocean Policy at the WWF European Policy Office, “It’s time for an EU Ocean Deal that includes sound planning of our seas as part of how we secure a resilient and climate-neutral future. As the EU enters the election season, prospective decision makers must be held to account for delivering maritime strategies that involve local stakeholders from the start, work across borders, phase out harmful activities and their subsidies, and achieve the EU’s commitments for nature protection and climate neutrality.” 

In light of findings in the recent Copernicus Climate Change Service’s European State of the Climate 2023 and the European Environment Agency’s Climate Risks Assessment, ocean action for climate action and people’s wellbeing is now urgently needed:

Globally, ocean heat content was the highest on record in 2023 and marine heatwaves were witnessed worldwide. In Europe, sea surface temperatures reached 5.5°C above average; in the North-East Atlantic around Europe, temperatures were above average from May to October last year, reaching 1.76°C above average in June – the largest monthly anomaly on record. 

The European Environment Agency has found that all marine ecosystems in the EU’s outermost regions are facing critical risks from ocean warming and marine heatwaves. Tropical cyclones and sea level rise are increasing catastrophic risks for infrastructure and ecosystems in the EU Macaronesian islands and tropical small islands like those of the French outermost regions.

The ocean plays a pivotal role in our economies and our wellbeing, and is an essential ally against the climate crisis. Sound planning that puts nature at its core and works in harmony with other EU legislation is now imperative to ensure our food and energy security, and nature recovery.

* 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. 
1. Spain: Canary Islands
While the Islands’ maritime spatial plan was approved relatively recently in February 2023, public consultations were scarce and engagement from local stakeholders was low. Further, as in other Spanish regions, the haphazard deployment of offshore wind farms is concerning.
Positively, the Canary Islands are subject to Spain’s national commitment to protect 25% of marine and coastal areas by 2025 as an intermediate step towards reaching the EU Biodiversity Strategy target of 30% protection by 2030. Success now hinges on having good connectivity between sites (to help species’ numbers recover across easily-accessible areas with limited or no human activities) and sound management of these areas.
As scientific data on the archipelago's marine ecosystems and climate change scenarios is still low, successful MSP in the region requires improving public understanding and acceptance of the measures adopted, and on assuming a forward-looking approach to delivering a sustainable balance of human activities, particularly in light of rapidly-expanding offshore wind and in cooperation with non-EU neighbouring countries in North Africa.
2. Portugal: Madeira and Azores
Madeira’s plan covers a maritime area about 500 times greater than its land area, demonstrating the significance of the marine territory in the region and for Portugal. However, the plan focuses primarily on current marine activities such as tourism, ports and fisheries and falls short in taking a forward-looking view that promotes sustainable tourism, offshore wind development and low-impact fishing practices, among other actions. Additionally, it does not actively support connectivity between protected areas in Madeiran waters or effective management of these spaces, both of which are key to achieving the European Green Deal.
Notably, the still-incomplete MSP process for the Azores leaves 57% of the Portuguese exclusive economic zone (960,432 square kilometres) without a maritime spatial plan. Azorean waters, whose resources contribute to over 20% of the archipelago’s exports and which are renowned for exceptional cetacean biodiversity, underscore the critical need for effective planning.
3. France: French Guiana
France's outermost regions - including Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Réunion, Martinique, Mayotte, and Saint Martin - face diverse pressures across their expansive territories. Two types of MSP documents currently exist in France: Documents Stratégiques de Façade, which apply to the mainland, and Documents Stratégique de Bassin Maritime, which adapt the economic, social and environmental orientations of the national strategy for the sea and coast to each OR. As of April 2024, five maritime basins (Antilles, South Indian Ocean, French Guiana, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon) have strategies in place.
In the case of French Guiana, for example, challenges persist, especially regarding local engagement as MSP is perceived as a mandatory exercise for France to comply with EU policy. The French Guianese fisheries sector, in particular, has dealt with longstanding overexploitation of marine resources by foreign fleets engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, leading them to question the pertinence of marine policies and plans, MSP included.
The EU’s global reach
The EU has nine outermost regions: Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Réunion, Martinique, Mayotte and Saint Martin (France), the Azores and Madeira (Portugal), and the Canary Islands (Spain).
Home to nearly five million citizens, the outermost regions stand out for their remote locations, insularity, small size, diverse topography, and economic dependence on a limited range of products. Despite their remote location and unique contexts, these regions are key to the EU’s global influence in political and environmental spheres, as their exclusive economic zones constitute the majority of European waters.
Despite the great distances separating these territories  from the European continent and their inherent differences, the outermost regions are integral parts of the EU  and, as such, are subject to common rights and obligations that are legally binding for all Member States, including the implementation of the MSP Directive in appropriate areas.
Cover of WWF publication on maritime spatial planning (MSP) in the EU outermost regions
© WWF European Policy Office