Select Committee on European Scrutiny Forty-First Report




COM(02) 539

Commission Communication: "Towards a strategy to protect and conserve the marine environment".

Legal base:
Document originated:2 October 2002
Deposited in Parliament:14 October 2002
Department:Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Basis of consideration:EM of 23 October 2002
Previous Committee Report:None
To be discussed in Council:9-10 December 2002
Committee's assessment:Politically important
Committee's decision:Cleared


  11.1  One of the objectives in the Sixth Environmental Action Programme is the development of a thematic strategy for the protection and conservation of the marine environment, so as to integrate the patchwork of measures which have been adopted on a sector by sector basis and by different bodies. The Commission also regards such a strategy as consistent with the Community's wider Strategy for Sustainable Development, and with the objectives in this area agreed by the World Summit on Sustainable Development held this summer in Johannesburg.

The current document

  11.2  The Commission says that not all the information needed to achieve an integrated approach is yet available. It therefore sees the aim of this document as seeking to set in train the process, by reviewing the current environmental status of the seas and identifying the main threats; reviewing the development and implementation of policies to control those threats, both within the Community and at regional and international level; identifying gaps in knowledge; drawing conclusions on what needs to be done; and identifying appropriate objectives for the Community. Overall, the Commission's aim is to enable all the relevant stakeholders to work together between now and 2004 to define and develop the thematic strategy.

(a)  Environmental status of the seas

  11.3  The Commission says that marine biodiversity is under significant pressure, with overfishing being a common problem, resulting in damage to the stocks concerned, to non-target species, and to sensitive habitats. It also identifies a range of other threats arising from the introduction of non-indigenous species and genetically modified or disease-bearing organisms, as a consequence of aquaculture and ship discharges; from the effect of increasing human activity (such as the development of ports, tourism, and sand and gravel extraction) along the coasts; from the discharge of various hazardous (and often persistent) substances into the environment; from eutrophication caused by excessive inputs of nutrients, such as nitrates, giving rise to toxic algal blooms affecting other marine life; from spillages of oil and chemicals as a result of accidents involving ships, or deliberate releases; from discharges of radionuclides; contamination from litter; microbiological pollution from untreated sewage; and from the potentially wide-ranging impact of climate change.

(b)  Present policies and legislation

  11.4  The Commission identifies a wide variety of Community measures which contribute to the protection of the marine environment, though it points out these are mostly sectoral, involving a large number of different organisations, and that there is no integrated policy in this area. It summarises the situation as follows:

  • Biodiversity decline and habitat protection

  11.5  The most significant policies and actions within the Community are the Habitat and Birds Directive, the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and the Biodiversity Action Plans. More widely, the OSPAR[18], Helsinki and Barcelona Conventions involve activities for the protection of species and habitats, whilst international conventions on fisheries and on biodiversity protection provide protection either of a general nature or directed at specific stocks.

  • Hazardous substances

  11.6  Community measures include the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) Directive, the Water Framework Directive and the new chemicals policy, whilst international marine conventions also address measures to control hazardous substances, with fruitful co-operation taking place between OSPAR and the Community over their assessment and subsequent regulation. However, the Commission observes that there can also be a large duplication of effort, as well as confusion arising from the divergent positions taken by countries in the different fora. Further afield, it comments that the recently agreed Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the LRTAP[19] Protocols will be relevant.

  • Eutrophication

  11.7  The main Community instruments are the Nitrates Directive, the Urban Wastewater Directive, the Water Framework Directive, and the CAP, whilst both OSPAR and HELCOM[20] stress the need to implement the necessary measures and to identify any further steps required.

  • Chronic oil pollution

  11.8  The Commission says that, although certain Directives are relevant, there is no specific Community policy or legislation addressing the offshore oil and gas industry, and that measures to control emissions from this sector are mainly developed by OSPAR, whilst elements of MARPOL[21] are applicable on a world-wide scale so far as the prevention of pollution from ships is concerned. It adds that, although these measures are complemented by Community rules for ships bound for Member States' ports, the main means of combatting pollution at sea is the action programme for controlling and reducing pollution from discharges of hydrocarbons and hazardous and noxious substances, a field in which it notes that HELCOM, the Bonn and Lisbon Agreements, and the Barcelona Convention are active.

  • Contamination with radionuclides

  11.9  The Commission notes that there is a global moratorium on sea dumping of radioactive wastes, but that a provision enabling Euratom to adopt recommendations on radioactivity levels in water, air and soil has not so far been utilised for the marine environment. It says that OSPAR is carrying out activities to identify, prioritise, monitor and control emissions, discharges and losses of radioactive substances, whilst HELCOM started in 1985 a monitoring programme as a continuation of previous work co-ordinated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

  • Health and environment

  11.10  The Commission says that the main pieces of Community legislation controlling microbiological pollution are the Bathing Water Directive and the Urban Wastewater Directive, though it notes that the main problems occur in the non-Community parts of the Mediterranean due to lack of adequate treatment facilities. The Communication notes that regional marine conventions are not involved in health issues, and that there is thus no overlap between them and the Community.

  11.11  The Commission also points out that two legal instruments — one within the Community, and the other at international level — could improve matters by providing for criminal sanctions to prevent harmful conduct. However, neither is yet in force.

  • Maritime transport

  11.12  The Commission notes that shipping is a highly regulated field at international level, and that Community legislation in this area is often related to that adopted globally. Consequently, the Community's main role has been to identify weaknesses and gaps in the international regulations and their implementation, and to adopt specific measures where considered necessary.

(c)  The present situation

  11.13  This section of the Communication begins by identifying gaps in knowledge of the quality of the marine environment. It suggests that, so far as biodiversity is concerned, such gaps in knowledge relate to the effects of human-induced changes and natural processes, and the recovery potential once those causes have been addressed; how changes in species diversity and structure influence the functioning of marine and coastal ecosystems; how sustainability should be defined in relation to biodiversity; and how to monitor changes.

  11.14  It says that there is a need for more reliable and accurate data to manage fish stocks better in marine waters, together with information on the effects of fishing on non-target species on benthic habitats; that inventories of species and habitats in need of protection are lacking in some areas; that data on marine mammal populations are incomplete, particularly as regards their abundance and the impact of human activities; and that information is lacking to identify, monitor and assess the impact of non-indigenous species.

  11.15  As regards chemicals, it says that, for a large number, reliable data on intrinsic properties as well as concentrations in the marine environment, are either lacking or not easily accessible, making it difficult to provide an overall picture or to establish reliable trends; and that there is little information on the range and concentrations of anthropogenic chemicals in the marine environment which may cause endocrine disruption in marine organisms.

  11.16  It also notes that, although HELCOM and the Bonn Agreement collect long-term information on illegal oil discharges from ships, information for other areas is incomplete; that understanding of the response of the marine ecosystem to inputs of nutrients is rather limited, as is information on the extent to which the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen oxides is contributing to marine eutrophication; and that information on the extent of pollution by radioactive substances, marine litter and of contamination of fish and shellfish products is also incomplete.

  11.17  This analysis is followed by a review of current activities regarding monitoring, assessment reporting and data management. The Commission suggests that most of the organisations involved in the development of measures to protect the marine environment are also involved in monitoring and assessment activities, but that the programmes of the regional conventions are not very coherent in terms of their scope, content and detail. It says that some of the difficulties can be attributed to differences in the environmental and political situations in the bordering countries; that duplication between the Community and the regional marine conventions might be reduced by synchronising the frequency and timing, and streamlining the content, of assessments, and harmonising the way they are made; and that improvements in data reporting and handling could usefully be realised on a European level, and be based upon a common policy on generation of, access to, and use of the different types of data and information. The Commission also observes that, although research has generated valuable insights into the state of the marine environment, the results are often neither available, nor exploited fully in operational work. It adds that there is scope for improvements in the setting of research priorities and in applying the result.

  11.18  Overall, the Communication concludes that a large number of problems have yet to be addressed fully, and that major threats still persist, despite the work of different bodies over the last three decades. It says that most of the Community legislation which contributes to addressing the protection of the marine environment was not designed specifically for this purpose, and that the control measures of the regional marine conventions are in some cases difficult to enforce. It also suggests that differences may arise in assessments of the need to control environmental threats, and a lack of coherence in the overall policies of the different organisations and in the specific measures adopted; breaks in the policy cycle when one organisation transfers certain issues to another for follow-up action; disputes over matters of competence; lack of coherence in Member States's positions in the different fora; and a duplication of effort, creating a waste of resources.

(d)  Objectives

  11.19  The remainder of the Communication seeks to suggest a way forward by setting specific sectoral or issue objectives, including timetables for their achievement, and a range of actions to fulfil those objectives.

(i) Loss of biodiversity and destruction of habitat

  11.20  The main aims would be to halt biodiversity decline by 2010, in line with the conclusions of the Gothenburg European Council; to ensure a sustainable use of biodiversity through the protection and conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora; and to achieve within the reform of the CFP a change in fisheries management to reverse the decline in stocks and ensure sustainable fisheries and healthy ecosytems, both in the Community and globally.

  11.21  The Commission proposes this would be done by:

  • making proposals for developing an ecosystem-based approach, building on the concepts in the Habitat and Water Framework Directives;

  • pursuing its efforts to implement the Habitat and Bird Directives in the marine environment, and to develop by 2005 a programme aimed at enhancing the protection of species and habitats in European waters, followed by proposals to adapt the list of habitates and species protected under the Natura 2000 network;

  • to adjust fishing effort and capacity in line with long term management plans;

  • in relation to non-indigenous species, support an initiative to prepare within the IMO an international convention on the management of ships' ballast water, and to develop in collaboration with regional management plans;

  • propose measures to limit escapes of farmed fish.

(ii) Hazardous substances

  11.22  The objective set by the Commission is to reach concentrations of such substances in the marine environment near background values for those occurring naturally and close to zero for man-made synthetic substances.

  11.23  It suggests that this would entail:

  • actively pursuing the implementation of the aims of the Water Framework Directive;

  • integrating these objectives into relevant Community policies such as those on chemicals and pesticides, so as to achieve a progressive reduction (and ultimate halting) of discharges, emissions and losses of these substances;

  • considering, in the context of its strategy for dioxins, furans and PCBs, the development of an integrated pilot programme for monitoring;

  • making proposals in 2002 for implementing the IMO Convention on Harmful Anti-foulants.

(iii) Eutrophication

  11.24  The Commission's aim is to eliminate human induced eutrophication problems by 2010. It would seek to do this by means of a more systematic approach which would:

  • pursue a more vigorous enforcement of the nitrates and urban wastewater Directives;

  • review the latest information concerning the process of eutrophication in the context of current legislation;

  • establish, with the relevant regional conventions a more comprehensive assessment in 2006 of the extent of marine eutrophication;

  • in the context of a strategy to reduce air pollution from ships, propose new complementary instruments.

(iv) Radionuclides

  11.25  The Commission says that the aim should be to prevent pollution from ionising radiation through progressive reductions in discharges, with the ultimate aim of reaching by 2020 concentrations near background values for naturally occurring radioactive substances and close to zero for artificial substances. It says that, in order to achieve this, it will by 2004 review the relationship between the OSPAR strategy for radioactive substances and existing Community measures, with particular regard to discharges from nuclear-fuel reprocessing plants, and will determine whether any Community action should be considered.

(v) Chronic oil pollution

  11.26  The Commission aims to ensure compliance with existing discharge limits of oil from ships and offshore installations by 2010 at the latest, and to eliminate all discharges from these sources by 2020. In particular, it will by 2004 explore ways to improve surveillance of illegal discharges of oil at sea, and of facilitating the prosecution of offenders. It will also elaborate by 2004, in collaboration with other relevant organisations, a strategy aimed at eliminating all discharges of oil from all sources, including a review of the different approaches to using and funding port reception facilities.

(vi) Litter

  11.27  The Commission aims to eliminate marine litter arising from illegal disposal at sea by 2010, and it says that it will prepare by 2004 a report on the extent and sources of such litter, and consider possible remedial measures.

(vii) Maritime transport

  11.28  The Commission's stated aim is to reduce the environmental impact of shipping by developing the concept of the "Clean Ship". It will therefore, with the help of the new European Maritime Safety Agency, continue to review the effectiveness of Community legislation in this area, and to promote initiatives to minimise environmental harm caused by maritime transport.

(viii) Health and Environment

  11.29  The Commission's objective is to achieve a quality of the environment where levels of contaminants do not give rise to significant impacts on, or risks to, human health and wellbeing. It suggests that this would involve:

  • assessing by 2004, in co-operation with Member States, the results of monitoring of the levels of contaminants in wild and farmed fish and shellfish, and making proposals in 2006 for maximum contaminant levels in the framework of food safety legislation;

  • coming forward in 2002 with a proposal to revise the Bathing Water Directive, so as to strengthen current levels of health protection;

  • achieving a rapid entry into force of the Annex of MARPOL relating to discharges of sewage from ships.

(ix) Climate change

  11.30  The Commission's main aim is to implement Community commitments made under the Kyoto Protocol, where it says it will place particular emphasis on emissions trading and the development of renewable energy sources.

(x) Co-ordination and co-operation

  11.31  In order to realise more effective co-ordination and co-operation between the different institutions and regional and global conventions, commissions and agreement governing marine protection, the Commission intends:

  • to establish an interservice group to consider all issues related to marine protection, and ensure effective co-ordination of sectoral regulations;

  • to establish a work programme involving a sharing of work with regional organisations and other stakeholders;

  • to publish by 2004 a report on the results of these initiatives, together with recommendations for further action;

  • to seek to apply in other areas the Regional Advisory Councils which it has proposed as part of its reform of the CFP;

  • to improve the co-ordination between the different funding instruments for the protection of the marine environment;

  • to promote improved co-ordination at a global level, including that between bodies dealing with marine protection under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea;

  • to seek Community membership of organisations such as the IMO

(xi) Improving the knowledge base

  11.32  In order to do this, the Commission will pursue three main types of work, on regional monitoring and assessment strategies, on the monitoring requirements under the Water Framework Directive, the food safety framework, and other relevant directives, and on developing on pan-European indicator-based assessments.

The Government's view

  11.33  In his Explanatory Memorandum of 23 October 2002, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Commons) at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr Elliot Morley) points out that his Department was responsible for publishing in May 2002 the Government's first Marine Stewardship Report, Safeguarding our Seas, which set out a strategy for the conservation and sustainable development of the marine environment. He says that the Government believes that this Communication succeeds in identifying the threats and pressures faced by Europe's seas, and that the Government endorses the analysis and supports the principles which underpin it, particularly the commitment to an ecosystem-based approach which the North Sea states have agreed to implement.

  11.34  The Minister points out that many of the objectives and actions proposed in the Communication are based on the implementation of existing Community legislation or strategies agreed within OSPAR, but that others contain new elements which will shape the direction of future legislation. He says that the UK welcomes the Commission's acknowledgement that many of the objectives in the Communication are of a political or aspirational nature, rather than specific, measurable or time-related, and that consequently these could be realised in different ways. He also suggests that, since not all the threats identified apply evenly across all of Europe's seas, some of the issues covered could be better taken forward by the different regional maritime conventions.

  11.35  Overall, the Minister says that the Government welcomes the Communication as a firm basis for dialogue leading to a Europe-wide marine strategy, and that the UK needs to establish with the Commission the status of the objectives and ultimate actions it has proposed and the proposed relationship between the Community and other bodies, and to ensure that the practicality, costs and benefits of any proposed actions are considered fully as the strategy is prepared.


  11.36  As will be evident from this Report, this document is extremely wide-ranging and many of the topics it deals with are important. It is thus clearly right that it should be drawn to the attention of the House. On the other hand, as the Government has pointed out, many of its aims are aspirational rather than specific, and there must be a risk that any debate on this Communication as such would lack focus. On balance, therefore, we think that parliamentary scrutiny of the issues raised by the Communication would be best served if they were to be the subject of individual consideration as and when the Commission comes forward with more specific proposals relating to particular areas of activity. On that basis, we are clearing the present document.

18   Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic. Back

19   UN-ECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.  Back

20   Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea. Back

21   International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. Back

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