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


21.  The Maritime Spatial Planning Directive (MSPD) obliges[20] EU Member States to use and to share the best available data to support the marine planning process.[21] In this chapter, we consider briefly the state of knowledge of the EU's seas and how regional co-operation could assist with data generation, sharing, availability and analysis. This is assessed in the context of a move towards ecosystem-based management of the seas, as enshrined in the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) (see Box 3).

State of the seas

22.  EU Member States have begun to report under the MSFD.[22] The European Environment Agency's (EEA) summary of those reports indicated: "Whether looking at species (fish, mammals, birds, invertebrates or reptiles) or marine habitats (water column, seabed), less than 20% of all biodiversity features are considered as being in Good Environmental Status."[23] In the North Sea, the most recent Quality Status Report of the North East Atlantic Regional Sea Convention, OSPAR (see Box 5) highlighted the breeding failure of seabirds as a particular concern due to the combined effect of climate change and fishing.[24] There are also some positive messages, including the recovery of certain fish stocks in the North Sea such as haddock and plaice,[25] and a reduction of inputs of nutrients by 50%.[26] Cefas, the UK's Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science confirmed that understanding of "some of the traditional areas of study that have been of concern for the past two decades", such as fish stocks and pollution, was good.[27]

Box 3: Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD)
The MSFD aims to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) of EU seas by 2020 and to protect the resource base upon which marine-related economic and social activities depend. The maintenance of biodiversity by 2020 is the cornerstone for achieving GES.[28]

The Directive takes an ecosystem-based approach to the management of the seas. By considering the marine environment and human activities together, this differs from traditional approaches that address single concerns, such as species, sectors or activities.[29]

23.  There is also good knowledge of the identity of the key challenges faced by the marine environment, such as climate change. One example in the North Sea of the effect of warming seas is the replacement of cold water plankton by warm water plankton, which has been documented by the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science.[30] The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) explained: "This is affecting the whole food chain, through small prey fish like sand eels up to top predators like seabirds."[31]

24.  While there is therefore some knowledge about high level trends and challenges, Wildlife and Countryside Link emphasised that "a detailed understanding of our marine environment is still poor."[32] With regard to the impact of effects induced by climate change, for example, Cefas said: "That will affect communities and the ecosystem in a way that we do not fully understand, but which will be significant and substantial."[33] They went on to say that the lack of such understanding meant that there was no baseline against which to measure change.[34]

25.  At the same time, witnesses cautioned against using a lack of information as a reason to postpone action. Cefas made a distinction between the level of knowledge required in order to understand the whole marine system and the level required in order to take decisions on marine management: "It will never be possible to know everything about everything, so the task is to have a risk-based approach".[35] The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) said: "we do not have a complete knowledge of the marine ecosystems but … this should [not] prevent us from providing the scientific basis to inform policies about the direction in which to move."[36]

26.  Where information is not comprehensive, the Treaties require that EU environmental policy decisions should be taken on the basis of the precautionary principle.[37] This has not been defined, but the Commission has stated:

    "Recourse to the precautionary principle presupposes that potentially dangerous effects deriving from a phenomenon, product or process have been identified, and that scientific evaluation does not allow the risk to be determined with sufficient certainty."[38]

The UK High Level Marine Objectives adopt a similar interpretation:

    "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing proportionate and cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."[39]

27.  Knowledge of the broad trends in the marine environment is developing but is already sufficient to state with reasonable confidence that marine biodiversity in the seas around the EU is degrading. In line with the precautionary principle, the current degree of uncertainty should not delay action now. The positive impacts of recent management measures in specific areas, such as fish stocks, can give confidence of the benefits of action taken on the basis of the precautionary principle.

Cumulative impact

28.  A particular challenge facing the marine ecosystem, notably in the highly industrialised North Sea, is the cumulative impact, or cumulative effect, of human activities. The European Commission concluded: "Marine ecosystems, their habitats and species throughout Europe continue to be under significant threat from cumulative impacts from human activities no matter what ecosystem features we look at."[40] An example of such cumulative impact is given in Box 4.

Box 4: Cumulative environmental impact on seabirds

The Norwegian Management Plan for the North Sea and Skagerrak[41] identifies pressures on seabirds, which can combine—in time and space—to intensify their impact:

·  Hazardous substances, such as persistent organic pollutants and marine litter—in a study of beached seabirds found at Lista near the southern tip of Norway, 98% of the birds were found to have plastic particles in their stomachs;

·  Acute pollution such as oil spills;

·  Disturbance of breeding sites due to leisure activities;

·  Accidental entanglement in fishing nets;

·  Collisions with turbines;

Changes to food supply caused by climate change, competition with the fishing industry and discharges of nutrients from agriculture, aquaculture, waste water treatment and industry.

29.  We were told that research on the cumulative impact of human activities, such as construction noise, on the marine environment was particularly lacking. ICES said: "we still have to learn more about how simultaneous pressures are impacting our ecosystems."[42] The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) stated: "The cumulative impact of all the different activities on the marine environment is largely unknown but is likely to be far greater than the sum of the individual activities."[43] Wildlife and Countryside Link gave the example of the unknown impact of electric pulse fishing[44] on the marine environment, such as sandworms, crabs and clams,[45] in addition to its specific impact on fish stocks.[46] Honeycomb worms (sabellaria alveolata), for example, can perform an important ecosystem engineering role by modifying the environment around them to the benefit of other species.[47] Professor Austen from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory emphasised that cumulative impact assessment is not only about the present but also about the future: "As we continue to add in more renewable energy installations and marine conservation zones or marine protected areas and as we continue to expand on aggregate dredging, we have to look to the future."[48]

30.  Cefas told us that there was no common understanding of what was meant by cumulative impacts, nor of how to understand them. They explained the challenge:

    "Activities can coincide both in space or in time. Sometimes they can occupy the same piece of seafloor, but do not occur in time and appear in different seasons. Occasionally, there is an interaction that is positive; sometimes, it is negative."[49]

Discussions are being pursued within the North East Atlantic Regional Sea Convention, OSPAR, (see Box 5) to develop mutual understanding of the terminology.[50] OSPAR's work includes a project, being co-led by Cefas in the UK, and The Netherlands, to evaluate various methodologies for assessments of cumulative impact. The project is due to report by mid-2015. Within OSPAR, Cefas has also worked with Sweden to produce a "risk-based approach for defining and implementing marine cumulative effects assessment". Under the ICES framework, Cefas chairs the Working Group on Integrated Assessments of the North Sea, which is developing ecosystem modelling and risk-based approaches to support cumulative effects assessment. [51]

Box 5: North East Atlantic Regional Sea Convention (OSPAR)
Globally, there are 18 regional sea programmes, 14 of which are supported by legally binding conventions.[52] The programmes engage neighbouring countries in comprehensive and specific actions to protect their shared marine environment. In the EU, there are four different Regional Sea Conventions, covering the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the North East Atlantic (OSPAR).[53]

The OSPAR Convention to protect the marine environment of the North East Atlantic dates back to 1972, with the Oslo Convention against dumping. This was broadened to cover land-based sources and the offshore industry by the Paris Convention of 1974. These two Conventions were unified, updated and extended by the 1992 OSPAR Convention. A new annex on biodiversity and ecosystems was adopted in 1998 to cover non-polluting human activities that can adversely affect the sea. The 15 contracting party governments are Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.[54]

31.  Professor Austen set out some of the emerging work being undertaken within EU-funded projects in order to assess cumulative impacts. One such project, VECTORS,[55] links economists with ecologists, physiologists and modellers to assess the impact on the fishing industry of climate change and different forms of fisheries spatial management. She described the project as exploratory and considered its cross-border nature to be essential.[56] ICES advocated pilot projects, with an initial focus on "a limited number of human activities where we are able to provide the scientific background information."[57]

32.  The lack of knowledge about cumulative impact is in stark contrast to the regulatory requirements at both UK and EU levels to take it into account. According to the UK's Marine Policy Statement, marine plans across the UK "should identify how the potential impacts of activities will be managed, including cumulative effects."[58] It is acknowledged in the East Inshore and Offshore Marine Plans, however, that current evidence places limits on the ability to provide plan-specific detail on cumulative effects.[59]

33.  At the EU level, cumulative impact assessment is referenced in various pieces of legislation, using distinct types of language. The Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive refers to "synergistic effects on the environment", and "cumulative nature of the effects".[60] The Environmental Impact Assessment Directive refers to "direct effects and indirect, secondary, cumulative, short, medium and long-term, permanent and temporary, positive and negative effects".[61] The Habitats Directive refers to "in combination" effects.[62] Article 8 of the MSFD indicates that Member States' initial assessment of their waters should cover: "the main cumulative and synergetic effects." In its report on the initial assessments submitted by Member States, the Commission referenced only one such inclusion, by Spain, with specific reference to cumulative sound pressures.[63]

34.  The joint UK MSFD consultation document on a Programme of Measures, published in January 2015, set out the current approach to marine cumulative impact assessment across the UK administrations:

    "Work is underway to review existing guidance for developers … on addressing cumulative impacts, as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment and Strategic Environmental Assessment processes. The UK is also involved in various initiatives to develop its understanding and evaluation of cumulative effects at both national and European levels. Careful consideration will be needed to ensure that impacts from groups of smaller scale developments can be distinguished from changes in prevailing conditions."[64]

35.  Knowledge of the cumulative impacts of all human activities on the marine ecosystem remains very limited, despite the fact that its consideration is a statutory requirement in both EU and UK legislation. It is an area that would benefit from greater regional co-operation but, for this to happen, agreement on terminology and on the methodology for assessment is required. We recommend that the preparatory work on methodology that has been undertaken thus far within OSPAR and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea be applied to practical pilot projects in the North Sea. (Recommendation 1)

36.  We recommend that the European Commission carry out a specific analysis of work undertaken by Member States to assess the cumulative impact of human activities, in line with Article 8 of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. We recommend also that the Commission review the consistency of cumulative impact obligations across EU environmental legislation and, furthermore, how those obligations are implemented in national legislation. (Recommendation 2)

Data availability and analysis


37.  Professor Austen criticised the amount of data made publicly available by the private sector. She said that the renewable energy or oil and gas industries "might have data available, but they are not releasing it".[65] Oil and Gas UK, on the other hand, stated that interaction with academia was increasing and that the industry had maintained a published database of all seabed surveys undertaken for oil and gas operations over the last 30 years.[66] The Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) told us that "bodies that hitherto have regarded data as a crucial part of their commercial operation are now beginning to realise that there is more to be gained by sharing information than by holding it close to your chest."[67] The Crown Estate reported that it had a Marine Data Exchange, providing access to survey data and reports from industry collated during the planning, building and operating of offshore renewable energy projects.[68]

38.  The European Commission's solution to making data available is the European Marine Observatory Data network (EMODnet) (see Box 6). Seascape Consultants[69] explained that national agencies and research institutes collected and held the main volume of data made available by EMODnet, but that efforts would increase to engage with industry stakeholders to secure more uptake of industry data into the EMODnet data system. This would require a different approach, as not all industry data were always freely available and accessible.[70] ICES did not see EMODnet solving the issue of getting more data made public.[71] Seascape Consultants noted that a call for tender would be launched early in 2015 to develop a data ingestion facility designed to encourage data submission to EMODnet.[72]

Box 6: European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODNet)
The European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet) is a long-term EU-funded marine data initiative. The EMODnet data infrastructure is developed through a stepwise approach in three major phases. Currently EMODnet is in the second phase of development.

(1)  Phase I (2009-2013) developed a prototype (so called ur-EMODnet) with coverage of a limited selection of sea basins, parameters and data products at low resolution;

(1)  Phase II (2013-2016) aims to move from a prototype to an operational service with full coverage of all European sea basins, a wider selection of parameters and medium resolution data products;

(2)  Phase III (2015-2020) will work towards providing a seamless multi-resolution digital map of the entire seabed of European waters, providing the highest resolution possible in areas that have been surveyed, including topography, geology, habitats and ecosystems; accompanied by timely information on the physical, chemical and biological state of the overlying water column as well as oceanographic forecasts.[73]

39.  SAMS considered that the amount of data available was in fact substantial but that, while data were now being accumulated "at rates that were inconceivable even two or three decades ago", a major issue was now "how we utilise that data so we can interrogate all of it concurrently and we can utilise different parts."[74] Similarly, Professor Mike Elliott from the Institute of Estuarine and Coastal Studies at the University of Hull said: "we have all of these data; how do we bring those together?"[75] ICES called for greater co-ordination of the findings from research vessel surveys.[76]

40.  Cefas explained that, in the UK, "the clear lead for data co-ordination is MEDIN—the Marine Environmental Data and Information Network."[77] They added: "All data providers—industry, government and others—are required to submit their data to MEDIN's standards and to have the information about that data available online."[78] They told us that all of the data produced by Cefas were available through MEDIN, "and parts of our data are also submitted directly to ICES, such as fisheries data, and contaminants data is submitted to OSPAR." We heard that OSPAR was developing a new Data and Information Management System.[79]

41.  OSPAR was concerned, however, that the existing initiatives were insufficiently connected, thus increasing the risk "that we end up with a fragmented system, where you do not know where to go to get what".[80] OSPAR added: "the more you can get people to do things in the same way and not replicate each other, the more costs you save."[81] Professor Elliott agreed that there was replication: "The mantra with data is that you collect once and use many times, whereas we probably collect many times and use once."[82] The need to share data is recognised in the new MSPD, which requires Member States to "organise the use of the best available data, and decide how to organise the sharing of information, necessary for maritime spatial plans."[83]

42.  Professor Elliott said that data "have to be quality-assured".[84] He warned that "if we put rubbish on [databases], we will get rubbish off."[85] ICES said that data should be: "comparable, quality assured and [able to] be used by the end users."[86]

43.  Professor Austen, though, warned: "we have to bear in mind that, if we make data publicly available, it is quite expensive to get them quality assured, deposited and organised to the point that the receiving body needs."[87] She argued that funding for EMODnet should be increased in order that such work could be undertaken by EMODnet rather than by those submitting data. If this were the case, she reasoned, "You would get a lot more enthusiasm from people to hand over data."[88]

44.  It is clear that there is no lack of desire to develop and accumulate knowledge, and there is widespread acknowledgement that access to information is key to protecting the marine environment.

45.  Data collection initiatives are not in short supply, but we are concerned that efforts may be duplicated and that the best, most cost-effective, use is not being made of existing data. This will need to be resolved in order to meet the requirements of the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive in relation to the organisation and use of data.

46.  National governments around the North Sea must commit to a single cross-border data collection initiative and allocate resources accordingly. Such a commitment could encourage a similar approach in other sea basins.

47.  While EMODnet is a promising initiative, it must be supported by Member States, Regional Sea Conventions and the ICES as well as by the private sector.

48.  We recommend that the European Commission work closely with the European Marine Observatory Data network (EMODnet) to ensure that awareness of the network is raised and that its database includes as much of the available information as possible. We recommend that consideration be given to increasing funding for EMODnet, so that it can format and quality-assure data itself, rather than relying on those submitting the data. (Recommendation 3)


49.  The EEA told us: "The countries [around the North Sea] usually do quite a good job when it comes to knowing the exact situation in their area. But the challenge is putting this together into a common pool and performing an analysis."[89]

50.  The North Sea Region Programme (NSRP)[90] developed a similar point:

    "There is a need for a mechanism to gather and sift the complex data involved, to initiate a participatory process and collect different views, and build towards a long-term consensus on the best use of the seas, in order to provide objective recommendations based on the interests of the wider ecosystem."[91]

51.  In the UK, the Marine Science Strategy provides a high-level framework for the development and implementation of marine science across the UK. It is taken forward through the Marine Science Co-ordination Committee (MSCC). Its working groups focus on long term monitoring and data assessment, science alignment, economic growth and communication.[92]

52.  Knowledge co-operation should extend to the analysis of available data. So far as the UK is concerned, we recommend that the Marine Science Co-ordination Committee develop a mechanism for such analysis. We recommend that the UK Government feed that work into discussion at OSPAR on adopting a similar approach for data analysis at the North Sea level, linking this in to any expansion of EMODnet's capacity. (Recommendation 4)

20   Maritime Spatial Planning Directive, Article 10 Back

21   The terms 'marine planning', 'marine spatial planning' and 'maritime spatial planning' were used synonymously by stakeholders. As the UK Government uses the term 'marine plans', this term will be used throughout the report. Back

22   Report from the Commission: The first phase of implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive: The European Commission's assessment and guidance, COM (2014) 97 Back

23   Marine Messages: Our Seas, our future: moving towards a new understanding, p 10  Back

24   OSPAR Commission, Quality Status Report 2010, Chapter 12: [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

25   Ibid., Chapter 8 Back

26   OSPAR Commission, The North Sea: An Integrated, Ecosystem Approach for Sustainable Development: [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

27    Q90 Back

28   European Commission, 'Legislation: The Marine Directive': [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

29   Marine Messages: Our Seas, our future: moving towards a new understanding, p 8 Back

30   Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, 'Northward shift indicators': research/macroecology-and-climate-change-impacts/northward-shifts.aspx [Accessed 11 February 2015] Back

31    Q106 (Dr Dunn) Back

32   Written evidence from Wildlife and Countryside Link (RMC0008) Back

33    Q92 Back

34    Q126 Back

35    Q90 Back

36    Q108 Back

37   Article 191(2), Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) (OJ C 326, 26 October 2012, p 132) Back

38   Communication from the Commission on the precautionary principle, COM(2000) 1 Back

39   HM Government, Our Seas: a shared resource, (February 2009): system/uploads/attachment_data/file/182486/ourseas-2009update.pdf [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

40   Commission Staff Working Document accompanying the Commission Report: The first phase of implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive: The European Commission's assessment and guidance, SWD(2014) 49 Back

41   Norwegian Ministry of the Environment, Integrated Management of the Marine Environment of the North Sea and Skaggerak Management Plan, (26 April 2013): f9eb7ce889be4f47b5a2df5863b1be3d/en-gb/pdfs/stm201220130037000engpdfs.pdf [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

42    Q108 Back

43   Written evidence from WWF (RMC0010) Back

44   Electric pulse fishing is based on a system which emits short electric pulses on a part of the seabed. This causes the muscles of the fish to contract, whereupon the fish detach from the seabed and land in the net. North Sea Advisory Council (NSRAC), Pulse Trawl: 04/16383_Imares_Factsheet_Pulse_Fishery.pdf [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

45   Ibid. Back

46   Written evidence from Wildlife and Countryside Link (RMC0008) Back

47   Ulrike Braeckman, Marijn Rabaut, Jan Vanaverbeke, Steven Degraer, Magda Vincx, 'Protecting the Commons: the use of Subtidal Ecosystem Engineers in Marine Management', Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, vol. 24, issue 2, (2014), pp 275-286: 10.1002/aqc.2448/abstract  Back

48    Q126 Back

49    Q91 Back

50    Q36 (Dr Campbell) Back

51   Written evidence from the UK Government (RMC0017) Back

52   United Nations Environment Programme, 'Regional Seas Programmes': programmes/default.asp [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

53   European Commission, DG Environment, 'Regional Sea Conventions': marine/international-cooperation/regional-sea-conventions/index_en.htm [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

54   OSPAR Commission, 'About OSPAR': [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

55   The Dogger Bank: understanding stakeholder and policy-maker needs Back

56    Q126 Back

57    Q109 Back

58   HM Government, UK Marine Policy Statement, (March 2011): system/uploads/attachment_data/file/69322/pb3654-marine-policy-statement-110316.pdf [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

59   Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, East Inshore and East Offshore Marine Plans (April 2014): [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

60   Directive 2001/42/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 June 2001 on the assessment of the effects of certain plans and programmes on the environment (OJ L 197, 21 July 2001, p 30) Back

61   Directive 2011/92/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13 December 2011 on the assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects on the environment (OJ L 26, 28 January 2012, p 1) Back

62   Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora, (OJ L 206, 22 July 1992, p 7) Back

63   Commission Staff Working Document accompanying the Commission Report: The first phase of implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive: The European Commission's assessment and guidance, SWD(2014) 49  Back

64   Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Welsh Government, Northern Irish Department of the Environment, The Scottish Government, Marine Strategy Framework Directive consultation: Programme of Measures, (January 2015): supporting_documents/20141015%20POM%20complete%20consultation%20document%20FINAL.pdf [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

65    Q126 Back

66   Written evidence from Oil and Gas UK (RMC0015) Back

67    Q94 Back

68    Q81 (Susan Kidd) Back

69   The secretariat for EMODnet. Back

70   Written evidence from Seascape Consultants Ltd (RMC0012) Back

71    Q111 Back

72   Written evidence from Seascape Consultants Ltd (RMC0012) Back

73   Ibid. Back

74    Q90 Back

75    Q128 Back

76    Q108 Back

77    Q93 Back

78   Ibid. Back

79   Written evidence from OSPAR (RMC0005) Back

80    Q43 (Dr Campbell) Back

81    Q45 (Dr Campbell) Back

82    Q128 Back

83   Maritime Spatial Planning Directive, Article 10 Back

84    Q128 Back

85   Ibid. Back

86    Q110 Back

87    Q128 Back

88   Ibid. Back

89    Q51 Back

90   The INTERREG North Sea Region Programme (NSRP) is a Programme of the European Union to promote the economic, environmental, social and territorial development of the North Sea Region area. It funds activities based on the co-operation of partners from seven countries: Belgium, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK. Successive rounds of INTERREG co-operation programmes have run in the North Sea Region since 1997 and will continue with a Programme for the 2014-2020 period. The 2007-2013 Programme had an overall budget of €274.2 million (€138.5 million funded through the European Regional Development Fund) and funded around 80 projects. Back

91   Written evidence from the North Sea Region Programme (RMC0007) Back

92   Written evidence from the UK Government (RMC0017) Back

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