Information Dissemination about the Ocean

【Ocean Newsletter】Back issues

No.352 April 5, 2015

Caring About Ocean Health Starts with Regional Seas Good Environmental Status

Ocean health

Among the six essential elements for delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN Secretary-General’s Synthesis Report※1 states that “we must protect our oceans, seas, rivers and atmosphere as our global heritage, and achieve climate justice”. This was largely developed during the 8th Session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals※2, asserting that, “Just as a person cannot do without a healthy heart and lungs, the Earth cannot survive without healthy oceans and seas”, with one of the proposed targets “being to achieve healthy marine ecosystems and marine biodiversity by establishing and applying integrated and ecosystem-based management approaches and measures at the sub-national, national and regional levels as appropriate, to ensure the basic life-sustaining and regulating functions of the ocean” and seas.

Given the global scale of human alteration of the natural environment, our challenge is to define ‘how’ healthy the ocean and seas should be and ‘how’ to move from good intentions to tangible outcomes.

How healthy?

Ecosystem health indicators have been extensively reviewed (Rice, 2003※3) and show that improperly applied they could fail to inform about events that have occurred in the real world, or can provide false alarms about events that did not happen. Moreover, their underpinning statement needs value judgements on the basis of reference conditions or baselines. Yet, as stated by Laurence Mee (2008※4), “baseline creates the illusion of ‘stable nature’ at some period in time and space when viewing disturbances in the wider ecosystem”. On the other hand, human memory is ‘short’, in particular intergenerational memory. For example, two centuries ago the Channel had extensive oyster beds that were progressively destroyed by overexploitation and pollution in the 19th century while, at that time, the more mobile flatfish flourished. Since then the entire area has been subjected to heavy trawling and flatfish populations have dwindled. Whatever the degree of sophistication in which “good” is defined in numerical terms, there will always be a more or less large element of subjectivity and value judgement

  1. ※1 The Road to Dignity by 2030 : Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet. Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General On the Post-2015 Agenda. New York, December 2014
  2. ※2 Proposal for a Sustainable Development Goals on Oceans and Seas. Prepared by the Global Ocean Forum, 11 February 2014
  3. ※3 Rice, J., 2003. Environmental health indicators. Ocean & Coastal Management 46, 235-259
  4. ※4 Mee, L., 2008. How good is good ? Human values and Europe’s proposed Marine Strategy Directive. Marine Pollution Bulletin 56, 187-204

As asked by L. Mee in the same publication, should a baseline be a seafloor abundant in oysters or one having large populations of flatfish? As recommended by the same author, one practical solution in defining a ‘baseline’ is to develop a network of marine protected areas covering representative habitats and sufficiently extended so as to be effective. Whatever the degree of sophistication in which “good” is defined in numerical terms, there will always be a more or less large element of subjectivity and quality judgement.

“Good Environmental Status” (GES) is at the heart of the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). Its definition is an on-going and ‘learning by doing’ challenge to European scientists and stakeholders to find ways to measure the eleven GES descriptors (Table 1) which involve protecting the marine environment, preventing its deterioration and restoring it where practical, while using marine resources sustainably.

Table 1 - MSFD descriptors of Good Environmental Status (GES)

  1. Biological diversity is maintained. The quality and occurrence of habitats and the distribution and abundance of species are in line with prevailing physiographic, geographic and climatic conditions.
  2. Non-indigenous species introduced by human activities are at levels that do not adversely alter the ecosystems.
  3. Fisheries: populations of all commercially exploited fish and shellfish are within safe biological limits, exhibiting a population age and size distribution that is indicative of a healthy stock.
  4. All elements of the marine food webs, to the extent that they are known, occur at normal abundance and diversity and levels capable of ensuring the long-term abundance of the species and the retention of their full reproductive capacity.
  5. Human-induced eutrophication is minimised, especially adverse effects thereof, such as losses in biodiversity, ecosystem degradation, harmful algae blooms and oxygen deficiency in bottom waters.
  6. Sea floor integrity is at a level that ensures that the structure and functions of the ecosystems are safeguarded and benthic ecosystems, in particular, are not adversely affected.
  7. Permanent alteration of hydrological conditions does not adversely affect marine ecosystems.
  8. Concentrations of contaminants are at levels not giving rise to pollution effects.
  9. Contaminants in fish and other seafood for human consumption do not exceed levels established by Community legislation or other relevant standards.
  10. Properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment.
  11. Introduction of energy, including underwater noise, is at levels that do not adversely affect the marine environment.

A national and regional seas affair 

The Directive, as the environmental component of the EU Integrated Maritime Strategy, came into force on 15 July 2008 to be then transposed into each EU member state’s law establishing a framework within which will be taken the necessary measures to achieve or maintain GES in the marine environment by 2020. In doing this, member states must apply an ecosystem-based approach to the management of human activities. The first stage of such a marine strategy was for each of them to carry out an initial assessment of the current status of their seas (entire EEZ), determine specific characteristics of GES and set out specific environmental targets and indicators to underpin this. The second ongoing stage is to establish and implement monitoring programmes to measure progress towards GES. The final stage (2015) will be the implementation of management measures to achieve GES by 2020.

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) is therefore an attempt to implement integrated ecosystem-based management (integrated coastal management when applying to the coastal areas) in the European seas. This means that the MSFD is not just calling for individual member states to develop a marine strategy, but for cooperation and coordination between them and where needed with third countries sharing the same regional sea. Therefore the main challenge is about developing governance mechanisms at the regional sea level that will facilitate a coherent implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive towards the good environmental status of the entire sea. Of course, any governance solution should make use of existing regional institutions like the Regional Seas Conventions or the Regional Fisheries Organisations.

Among the main driving forces leading the ongoing work are the states’ willingness and capacity to cooperate and stakeholder involvement, on which greatly depends the legitimacy of the decisions taken and thus the likelihood of achieving management objectives. From the many EU projects currently exploring and supporting the involvement of stakeholders in process implementation, it is evidenced that: i) participation in regional cooperation is economically costly, but the benefits achieved are greater than without participation; ii) clearly defined and transparent decision-making structures need to be established; iii) regional cooperation is not possible when different authorities select their own rules. Consequently, coordination among all institutions responsible for implementing the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) is needed for cooperation at the regional sea level.

Figure 1 - Map of the regional seas and sub-regions defined within the MSFD

Actually, the European regional seas governance system is still very fragmented between the European Union policies, the Regional Seas Conventions, and sector organisations like the Regional Fisheries Organisations. At the same time, each regional sea (e.g. Baltic Sea; Black Sea; Mediterranean Sea; North-East Atlantic Ocean) has its specificities, with some of them (Mediterranean; North-East Atlantic Ocean) needing to be subdivided into sub-regional seas (Fig.1), meaning that governance structures and mechanisms cannot follow a ‘one size fits all’ approach but must mobilise and allow specific forms of institutional networking and interaction between conservation and economic sector international and regional agreements.