Protecting Our Seas – Give us HOPE!

On the 3 and 4 of March the European Commission held the, ‘Healthy Oceans – Productive Ecosystems’ (HOPE) conference concerning the state of the European marine environment, in Brussels. This is following a report published on 2 February assessing the current state of European seas in relation to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). The report highlights that the European marine environment is in a disquieting condition and that the promise to achieve good environmental status of our seas by 2020 is currently not on track. As such, more urgent action needs to be taken to ensure that our seas remain sustainably productive and ecologically healthy.

One of the biggest problems achieving this target is the lack of data available to effectively assess the problems we are facing and how these problems are affecting marine ecosystems. Currently, more is known about the surface of Mars than deep ocean ecosystems. The EU commission states that very few EU member states have put forward strategies to manage this issue or ensure that gaps are closed. At the moment, only two thirds of the EU sea area is currently being assessed and the status of 70% of marine species is unknown. Rectifying this would be one of the most important steps towards ensuring the 2020 target is reached.

Of the information we do have, pollution, eutrophication and over-fishing in parts of the EU are reported to be amongst the biggest problems we are facing. In the Baltic Sea, nutrient emissions are causing excessive algal blooms. This is reducing the availability of oxygen (hypoxia) in the sea and in turn negatively impacting the greater ecosystem. Concerning this form of pollution, data from the Black Sea is limited and the official conditions are unknown. Over-fishing is also posing a threat to marine environments in parts of the EU, particularly in the Black Sea and Mediterranean, where of the assessed stocks, 88% are considered to be over-exploited. In the Mediterranean, marine-exploitation as a result of energy source exploration and sea bed mining are further damaging the area further.

Overall, below 20% of European marine ecosystems are currently considered to be healthy which indicates that the MSFD has a long way to go and far greater steps need to be taken to ensure this percentage increases. Climate change, ocean acidification (as a result of increased CO2), vast quantities of litter (largely plastics) and other pollutants finding their way into our seas are largely responsible for damaging EU oceanic ecosystems.  Since the industrial revolution ocean acidification has increased 100 times more rapidly than the previous 55 million years and climate change has caused oceanic surface temperatures to increase at a rate 10 times greater than the average (since 1870 when records began). These rapid changes are unsustainable for the marine environment and unless the detrimental effects of these influences are managed then the currently productive and profitable nature of EU seas and the production of essential ecosystem services provided by the ocean, will suffer.

It is essential that tourism, transport, offshore energy and fisheries function in a sustainable manner so as to ensure that these industries and our ecosystems can thrive in the future. The marine environment provides vast economic benefits to EU states and the 660 million Europeans living on coastal regions. With 5.4 million people in maritime employment, our marine industries contribute €330-485 billion to the European economy. It is, therefore, essential that further degradation of EU seas is averted in order to ensure a healthy future of this essential economic and ecological contribution.

Some small steps are being taken, however, to encourage and aid individuals to help protect our seas and coastal regions. A new app (Marine LitterWatch) has been launched to collect information about the litter being found on beaches and an EU wide beach clean-up day has been organised for 10 May. There is another app –Beat the Microbead – that has been launched to allow users to scan the barcodes of products they buy to assess whether it contains tiny plastic beads, known as micro beads, which are contributing to the excess plastic being found in the ocean.

At the end of the conference a document, ‘The Declaration of HOPE’, was produced, outlining the conclusions made at the conference and the steps that need to be taken. Let’s hope this leads to real action and further data collection so our seas can be sufficiently protected.