The North Sea under pressure: is regional marine co-operation the answer? - European Union Committee Contents

The North Sea under pressure: is regional marine co-operation the answer?


The challenge

1.  Often out of sight and out of mind, the North Sea[1] is the lifeblood of more than 60 million people[2] who live on or near its shores. It provides much of the oxygen on which we depend, employs around 850,000 people, provides an estimated gross added value[3] of €150 billion to surrounding countries, and supplies an increasing proportion of the secure, affordable and clean energy on which the UK depends.[4] At the same time, we expect it to provide a healthy supply of food, secure trade routes and leisure opportunities. We are demanding more and more.

2.  Yet the North Sea is in a state of environmental degradation. For example, 98% of seabirds on a Norwegian beach were found to have fragments of plastics in their stomachs (see Box 4), and although some fish stocks are improving, others remain in a critical state. It is one of the most industrialised seas in the world. Ships queue to progress through the southern North Sea[5], and the number of offshore wind farm turbines in UK waters is likely to increase from the current 1,000 to an estimated 3,000 by 2020.[6] Figure 1 demonstrates the intensity of the use of the North Sea in UK waters. We were not able to source a map displaying similar usage for the entire basin—a fact which demonstrates that marine co-operation and cross-border marine planning in the North Sea have a long way to go.

Figure 1: Competition for marine space [7]

3.  Surprisingly, given the complexity of the marine environment, the mechanisms of co-operation and planning are underdeveloped. There is a plethora of different policies and approaches, yet a distinct lack of political leadership. The failure to agree on a coherent fisheries management plan on the Dogger Bank since 2011, for example, has paralysed progress in environmental management of the whole area.

Box 1: Dogger Bank[8]
The Dogger Bank is an area of the North Sea measuring around 18,000km², falling within UK, Dutch, Danish and German jurisdiction. It lies around 150km north east of the Humber Estuary.[9] The United Kingdom, The Netherlands and Germany have designated parts of the area as environmental protected areas; those three Member States and Denmark have fishing rights; and planning permission has just been granted for the first stage of a large offshore wind farm[10] in the UK section of the Dogger Bank.

4.  The opportunities derived from co-operation, and the risks of failing to co-operate, are encapsulated in the energy sector, which for that reason features prominently in our report. The supply of energy to the UK, and to the EU as a whole, has come under increasing focus because of uncertainties surrounding the supply of gas from Russia.  Increased energy co-operation between North Sea countries can improve the security of supply and mitigate soaring consumer and commercial prices. Yet installing cables, pipelines and offshore energy structures can also impact the marine environment and other users of the sea. Dolphins, for example, can be seriously affected by the noise of pile driving new structures into the seabed. Structures present navigational challenges for shipping. Cables can affect the fishing industry. On the other hand, offshore structures can act as artificial reefs for a range of sea life, and it may be possible for decommissioned oil infrastructure to be used for wind farms.

5.  In summary, the cumulative impact of uncoordinated human activities has the potential to inflict further harm on the very resource on which they depend. Swift action is required to mitigate this risk.

A new approach

6.  The 2014 briefing 'Marine Messages'[11], by the European Environment Agency (EEA), presented a compelling argument for a new approach to the sustainable use of the seas, and advocated increased co-operation between users of the marine environment, an approach supported by almost all who contributed to this inquiry.[12] The benefits of co-operation are discussed in this report, as are the challenges. Although scientific knowledge of the marine environment is often incomplete, we stress that this should not prevent increased co-operation; poor knowledge should not stand in the way of action.

7.  This is an important time in the development of marine governance structures in the European Union. Member States are in the process of implementing the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD),[13] and will need to implement the recently adopted Maritime Spatial Planning Directive (MSPD);[14] co-operation is mandated in both of these Directives. Implementation of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP)[15] is underway and a regional approach features prominently. Energy security is high on the political agenda of the new European Commission and increased energy interconnection has pan-European support. It was against this backdrop that we undertook an inquiry which examines the potential to synergise and enhance the effects of these diverse tasks.

8.  In the past, initiatives to build better marine co-operation in the North Sea have often been prompted by some form of environmental disaster or crisis. This does not need to be the pattern for co-operation in the future. Political leadership is required to stimulate discussions that would otherwise not take place.

The Blue Growth Agenda

9.  The seas are a rich natural resource drawn upon by the people who live on their shores. According to the European Commission, across the EU, the 'blue' economy represents roughly 5.4 million jobs and generates a gross added value to Member State economies of almost €500 billion a year.[16] Many coastal communities depend on the marine environment for their livelihood and have existed for centuries in a delicate relationship, which both exploits and sustains. Care should be taken to ensure that increased and uncoordinated human activity does not disrupt this balance.

10.  The European Commission's Blue Growth strategy[17] (see Box 2) is the long term plan to support sustainable economic growth in the marine sectors. It is the marine sector's contribution to achieving the goals of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, and encompasses the energy and fishing industries, among others. Although this activity is often juxtaposed with environmental conservation efforts, we believe that if users are willing to co-operate and communicate effectively, economic growth can be achieved alongside the work to safeguard the marine environment.

Box 2: Blue Growth[18]

The EU's Blue Growth strategy is a strand of the Integrated Maritime Policy, which was first launched in 2007.[19]

The strategy consists of three components:

(1)  The development of sectors that have a high potential for sustainable jobs and growth, such as aquaculture (fish farming), coastal tourism, marine biotechnology, ocean energy and seabed mining;

(2)  The provision of knowledge, legal certainty and security through marine knowledge, [marine planning] and integrated maritime surveillance;

(3)  The development of sea basin strategies to ensure tailor-made measures and to foster co-operation between countries


11.  Co-operation between users of the seas can be understood in a variety of ways. Moreover, concepts such as communication, consultation, co-operation and co-ordination are not synonymous. We identified three main relationship axes, and sought to examine each of them in the course of our inquiry:

(1)  Co-operation between different industries and interests;

(2)  Co-operation between those in the same industry;

(3)  Co-operation between regulators, national governments, the European Commission and other supra-national bodies.

12.  These relationships are multi-faceted. Although there are fruitful initiatives in place in certain areas, we heard that it is often difficult for individuals and bodies to participate because of a lack of information, an over-complicated regulatory framework or a lack of resources. In other areas, the technology and know-how exists to implement practical co-operation initiatives, but the political impetus is lacking. The absence of any overarching strategic approach to the North Sea basin was particularly striking.

Scope of the inquiry

13.  The inquiry's primary focus was marine co-operation in the North Sea. This was a conscious decision, taken in the light of time constraints and because of the UK's deep involvement and political interest in the North Sea basin. Moreover, it helped to give the inquiry some practical application, and allowed us to examine how the six other EU Member States with a North Sea coastline and Norway are approaching the same issues as the UK. Although different sea basins face different problems, some of the conclusions we draw from the specific situation of the North Sea may be applicable in the wider EU marine context. Our focus was the principle of co-operation itself: we did not assess the merits or otherwise of different industries such as oil and gas, renewable energy, fishing or aquaculture. In order to illustrate some of the complexities associated with co-operation in the marine environment, however, we have used case studies from individual sectors.

14.  The report examines the issues stemming from what we know and what we do not know about the state of the marine environment (Chapter 2), and the tensions and opportunities that currently exist as multiple users draw on the same resource (Chapter 3). Current examples of co-operation are examined (Chapter 4), as are options for the future (Chapter 5). The vast majority of respondents to the Call for Evidence were of the view that increased co-operation is a good thing; this report suggests practical ways to realise this vision.

15.  Shipping is one of the main sectors to operate across the North Sea, but as a truly global industry, the main strategic and regulatory decisions are taken outside the European Union. Although we did not focus on the shipping industry in any depth, we acknowledge the role that the UK Government must play in considering the regional effects of decisions taken at an international level through the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

The Committee's work

16.  While this report is made to the House, it is also aimed at a wide range of policymakers and others, within the UK and across the EU as a whole. We trust that the new Commission will take note of our report, and we look forward to its response in the context of the ongoing political dialogue between the Commission and national parliaments. It is particularly pleasing to be able to send our findings to Mr Karmenu Vella, the Commissioner for the newly amalgamated portfolio of Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. Our hope is that this report will also assist the governments of individual Member States.

17.  We issued our Call for Evidence in July 2014 and took oral evidence from a range of UK and EU witnesses between October and December 2014. Overall, we received 17 pieces of written evidence and took oral evidence from 28 witnesses, held over 11 evidence sessions.

18.  The members of the Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment and Energy Sub-Committee who carried out the inquiry are listed in Appendix 1; their declared interests are also listed here. We are grateful for the written and oral evidence that was submitted to the inquiry; the witnesses are shown in Appendix 2. We are also grateful to Rodney Anderson and Dr Irene McMaster, who acted as Specialist Advisers to the inquiry.

19.  The Call for Evidence is given in Appendix 3 and a list of abbreviations can be found in Appendix 4. All evidence is published online.

20.  We make this report to the House for debate.

1   The North Sea is situated on the continental shelf of north-west Europe. It forms part of the North East Atlantic region as defined by the North East Atlantic Regional Sea Convention, OSPAR. It extends: to Arctic Waters to the north; beyond the Orkney and Shetland Islands to the Atlantic Ocean and the Celtic Seas to the north west; to the Baltic Sea in the east; and to the English Channel to the south west. States bordering the North Sea are the UK, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and France. Back

2   North Sea Region Programme, 'Background': [Accessed 5 February 2015]  Back

3   Gross Value Added (GVA) is an accounting concept that measures the contribution to the economy of each individual producer, industry or sector, as described by Eurostat: statistics-explained/index.php/Glossary:Gross_value_added_at_market_prices [Accessed 17 February 2015]  Back

4   ECORYS, MRAG and S.Pro, Study on Blue Growth and Maritime Policy within the EU North Sea Region and the English Channel (March 2014): files/Final%20Report%20North%20Sea_corr_03032014.pdf [Accessed 5 February 2015] Back

5    Q32 (Matt Nichols) Back

6    Q16 (Nick Medic) Back

7   The map is indicative of competition for space in the North Sea but it is not definitive as not all activities occurring in the North Sea are included. Back

8   Vectors of Change in Oceans and Seas Marine Life, Impact on Economic Sectors (VECTORS), The Dogger Bank: understanding stakeholder and policy-maker needs: The_Dogger_Bank_understanding_stakeholder_and_pol [Accessed 16 February 2015] Back

9   Joint Nature Conservation Committee, 'Dogger Bank': [Accessed 16 February 2015] Back

10   Forewind, 'Dogger Bank Creyke Beck granted consent': [Accessed 24 February 2015] Back

11   European Environment Agency, Marine Messages: Our Seas, our future: moving towards a new understanding, February 2014: [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

12   Written evidence from Raymond Finch MEP stated "UKIP is against regional co-operation within the EU" (RMC0004). Back

13   Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy, (OJ L 164, 25 June 2008, p 19) Back

14   Directive 2014/89/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 July 2014 establishing a framework for maritime spatial planning, (OJ L 257, 28 August 2014, p 135) Back

15   Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2013 on the Common Fisheries Policy, amending Council Regulations (EC) No 1954/2003 and (EC) No 1224/2009 and repealing Council Regulations (EC) No 2371/2002 and (EC) No 639/2004 and Council Decision 2004/585/EC, (Common Fisheries Policy Regulation 2013) (OJ L 354, 28 December 2013, p 22) Back

16   European Commission, 'Blue Growth': [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

17   Ibid. Back

18   Ibid.  Back

19   Communication from the Commission: An Integrated Maritime Policy for the European Union, COM(2007) 575  Back

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