The EU is not on track for a sustainable blue future

Posted on May, 07 2024

WWF analyses of 16 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

National maritime plans in the EU Mediterranean region are misaligned within and across borders, fail to account for climate change, and are off track to achieve renewable energy and marine protection targets. Further, plans are not based on sound cross-border cooperation and stakeholder engagement - both key for a region that relies heavily on small-scale enterprises in sectors such as tourism and fisheries (small-scale fishers represent 82% of the EU Mediterranean fleet). Without this, any national effort to deliver a good environmental status for the Mediterranean Sea will ultimately be unsuccessful. 

Four Member States, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece and Italy, were not able to be assessed as they still have not implemented plans for their marine areas and are under infringement procedures by the European Commission for their failure to prepare these plans by the legal deadline of March 2021. 

Of the Member States WWF was able to assess, the best-performing country in the assessment, Slovenia, still only ranked a partially-successful achievement (56%) for applying an ecosystem-based approach to managing its waters. 

Positively, France and Spain, two countries with territorial waters in more than one regional sea, both scored higher in the Mediterranean than in the other European sea basins, highlighting the social, economic and cultural importance of this region to the EU’s largest blue economies. Further, both countries have specific strategies in place to help deliver the EU Biodiversity Strategy goal of protecting at least 30% of marine and coastal areas, in addition to mitigation measures that restore blue carbon ecosystems such as seagrass meadows. However, apart from Slovenia and Malta, all Member States in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean remain without a national plan despite these nations’ heavy reliance on marine-related tourism.

EU outermost regions and overseas countries and territories

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.

Regarding MSP in the Canary Islands, public consultations were scarce and mainly focused on a State level, with little engagement from Canarians and regional economic agents; however, the competent authorities have since taken steps to increase civil society’s participation in the MSP process. The current plan includes a proposal for sites to expand and improve the archipelago’s MPA network as part of achieving the EU Biodiversity Strategy target of 30% protection by 2030, but it remains to be seen whether protected areas will be well connected and managed by the Spanish authorities. Finally, the haphazard deployment of offshore wind farms is concerning, particularly in light of RepowerEU’s watering down of environmental regulations and the delayed publication of guidance for the designation of “renewable acceleration areas” by the European Commission.

In Madeira, the current plan focuses on present-day marine and coastal activities, such as tourism (which accounted for more than three-quarters of the maritime gross value added between 2016 and 2017), ports and fisheries; it does not promote actions to achieve a more modern, resource-efficient and climate-neutral blue economy, such as through sustainable tourism, offshore wind development and low-impact fishing practices. Additionally, it does not actively support connectivity between MPAs in Madeiran waters, nor effective management of these spaces, both of which are key to delivering the European Green Deal.

The Azores, however, has still not finalised the MSP process, leaving 57% of the Portuguese exclusive economic zone (960,432 square kilometres) without a maritime spatial plan in place.

France has the world’s largest exclusive economic zone, and its six outermost regions are spread across our planet, stretching from the Caribbean Sea to the West Indies. France has adopted a dual approach to MSP with two types of strategic planning documents: one for the mainland area and one for the outermost regions. WWF has assessed the mainland strategies in its other MSP reports (see above). For the French outermost regions, four regional strategies that consider diverse maritime activities (e.g. shipping, fishing, energy production, environmental protection) are in place: Antilles, South Indian Ocean, French Guiana, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. As these strategies are developed differently than what is required under the MSPD, WWF has not assessed them using the same methodology as in its other reports.

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. In the Mediterranean, WWF is advocating for the establishment of a dedicated regional working group to focus on the integration and implementation of an ecosystem-based approach to MSP. These approaches would help ensure that neighbouring EU and non-EU countries are jointly aligned in their commitments to address the climate and biodiversity crises, and safeguard maritime livelihoods for generations to come.