Marine Protected Areas in Europe
|November 17th, 2015|
|tags:||biodiversity, Europe’s marine, Johnny Reker, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)|
European seas cover 5.7 million square kilometres, including areas of ocean as well as landlocked seas. These areas contain a diverse range of habitats which are home to thousands of species of plants and animals and which act as the foundation for marine ecosystems. They also provide a range of other functions, useful to our society, including climate regulation, sources of food and areas of leisure activity such as diving and whale watching.
Unfortunately, human activities are having an increased impact on marine environments, resulting in an accelerated rate of biodiversity loss through extinctions of marine species caused by a number of human activities. In 2002 the World Summit on Sustainable Development called for the establishment of effectively managed Marine Protection Areas (MPAs) by 2012. The EU has been contributing by establishing its own MPA’s which, by the end of 2012 covered 5.9 percent of European seas and currently cover around 10 percent.
fairplanet: What kind of pressures are European marine environments under at present?
The EEA recently published a big report which focused especially on the damage to the seafloor caused by fisheries, it also looked at the extraction of species, the nutrient enrichment that is a big problem – especially in the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, there are also emerging pressures such as marine technology and noise and also the effects of climate change. There are different pressures in different regions, for example in the Mediterranean there are a number of non-indigenous species appearing, we have a few in the Atlantic region and what we have seen in all of the seas is that they reflect the cumulative effects of all these pressures acting together. There are a lot of complex connections with all these.
What kind of damage are these activities inflicting on European seas?
Biodiversity of course. Fortunately though we haven’t lost that many species in European waters, although the losses do include the sturgeon in the Baltic Sea and the Greater Auk in the North West Atlantic. The Bluefin Tuna used to spawn in the Black Sea, but that hasn’t happened for twenty years. The distribution ranges of the various species are narrowing. We have found more and more plastic being eaten by organisms at all levels of the food chain. This is causing huge areas of oxygen-depleted areas in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea. Fishing activities, especially with bottom trawling, is causing a loss of complexity which in turn results in fewer species in those habitats that are impacted.
What are Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and how do they help to protect biodiversity loss?
They are basically geographically distinct areas where you have enhanced conservation objectives in place. MPAs ensure that biodiversity is left alone by minimising the effects of human activity in these sites. If the measures are well enforced, then you can see positive effects on biodiversity and number of species. Inside well-managed MPAs you have much higher biomass, a much higher abundance of individuals and overall productivity is much higher. MPAs help to provide a sanctuary for species, providing a sort of biodiversity board, a bank from which we can restore our environment once we find the right balance.
Why are MPA networks better than individual MPAs? What added benefits can they bring?
It’s quite simple, if you have a network you can better represent the marine environment, so with deep sea you often have soft sediments but the closer you get to shore you have more sand and rock, and if you only put your MPAs in coastal areas you lose out with important habitats somewhere else. So if you only put MPAs in one area, it wouldn’t cover all the species.
What kind of management measures are applied in these areas to restrict damaging human activity?
As it is now, especially with the Natura 2000 sites designated under the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive, the measures really depend on what you are trying to protect. If you are trying to protect marine mammals you might have to implement measures with regard to noise, or if you wanted to set up a wind farm nearby or do oil and gas exploitation, there are certain measures you must put in place to scare away the mammals before you start big activities that cause high frequency noise. So it depends on the feature you are seeking to protect.
How successful has this system been so far?
I think, starting with the positive side, in Europe we have 23 countries that are implementing and designating MPAs. Europe has moved quite far. We have close to 400,000 kilometres designated under the same legislation but we still need to make sure we are closing gaps. We are still not seeing an effect on the number of species. It could be that these sites have been visited many times in the past few years so they need more time to become fully functional. It could also be that the measures are not being implemented strictly enough.
What are the main areas for improvement identified by the report?
The obvious one is that we first need to complete the networks. We have to make sure they are representative. Secondly, we need to look at what ‘well managed’ actually means within the context of MPAs. We need to monitor data and see that they are actually delivering conservation objectives. Third, we need to streamline data between our different policies. This is not necessarily happening right now. So this is about better merging of policies.
So as a general overview, at present how effective is the EU’s policy regarding the marine environment?
We are moving forwards fast, but we need to see stronger results with regard to biodiversity. On the broader environment, the message is fairly positive. With regard to the Marine Strategic Framework Directive, we are starting to see reductions in nutrients, especially in the Baltic Sea. With the Common Fisheries Policy, we are seeing more fish stocks, since 2007, being fished sustainably. This is not to say everything is good, we have to realise that the current situation reflects decades of mismanagement and abuse. It will take time for the sea to recover. This is where the MPAs play an important role.