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Layers of regulations to protect European seas ‘not working,’ audit finds

School of tuna. Image by United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization/ Danilo Cedrone via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

  • A recent report published by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) found that the European Union (EU) was not doing enough to protect and restore its oceans, despite having various policies in place to support conservation efforts.
  • In particular, the ECA report found that only 1% of more than 3,000 marine protected areas (MPAs) in EU waters provided full protection to marine habitats, and that the MPAs generally failed to protect biodiversity.
  • The report also found that sustainable fishing and environmental standard targets were not being met, some policies were out of date, and that EU funding was not being adequately utilized for conservation efforts.
  • A recent report by the NGO Oceana on trawling activities in sensitive marine habitats in the Mediterranean provides further evidence that EU policies are not doing enough to protect its seas.

Europe is failing to protect its oceans, despite having policies in place to safeguard its marine environment, according to a report published by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) on Nov. 26.

The ECA, an independent institution within the European Union (EU), looked at marine protection efforts between 2018 and 2020 to see if existing policies within the EU framework were addressing key pressures on marine biodiversity and habitats. What the report ultimately found was that the EU had not taken sufficient action to restore its ailing seas, or to keep fishing at sustainable levels, especially in the Mediterranean.

Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis). Image by Sheilapic76 / Creative Commons.

“It’s pretty grim,” a member of the audit team told Mongabay in an interview. “Europe does have a framework in place, but what is there isn’t working.”

There is an intricate web of rules, laws and directives to manage the EU’s marine environment, including the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), designed to regulate fishing fleets and conserve fish stocks; the Birds and Habitats Directives (BHDs), which aim to protect threatened species and habitats through a network of protected areas; and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) that provides an overarching marine policy meant to integrate fishing and environmental regulations. While these policies appear adequate, they’re not being put into practice, according to the report.

“It all looks great on paper,” the auditor said. “It all looks very sensible, but the reality is that when you try to apply [them] there are gaps.”

In some instances, policies even seem to be at odds with each other. For example, many EU member states have established marine protected areas (MPAs) in their territorial waters as per the conservation commitments set out in the MSFD and the BHDs, which allows them to impose fishing restrictions on vessels owned and operated by their own citizens. However, the CFP gives EU member states the right to fish in other member states’ waters, even within other countries’ MPAs. To ban other EU members from fishing within these MPAs, nations would need to engage in multilateral discussions under the CFP, a process that could take many years.

Outside of coastal zones, MPAs in EU waters have reduced protection. Image by ECA.

In 2019, there were more than 3,000 MPAs across EU waters, which has, in theory, allowed the EU to meet the target of protecting 10% of the oceans by 2020, a key target for ocean protection as set out by United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Target 11. But according to the audit, these MPAs, many of which are situated in coastal regions rather than the deep sea, are not doing enough to protect marine biodiversity. The ECA also references a recent report published by the European Environmental Agency (EEA), which suggests that only 1% of MPAs in the EU provide full protection to the ocean. Additionally, a 2019 study, also referenced in the ECA report, found that 59% of surveyed MPAs were actually being commercially trawled at higher levels than non-protected areas, and that in general, most MPAs did not protect vulnerable species.

“Overall, they [MPAs] don’t work so well,” the auditor said. “We’re not at all saying they should be abolished because … there are some very good examples, but it’s just the case where I think the political authorities need to give more priority to it.”

The report also found that the EU and member states were not meeting most of the targets set out in various policies. For example, the CFP stipulates that fishing catch limits should be set at sustainable limits by 2020. While the report found that some improvements had been made with fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean, some stocks were still being overfished. In the Mediterranean, the problem was much worse: the report found that fish were being caught at “twice sustainable levels.”

Shortfin mako shark in the North Atlantic at Condor Bank, Azores. Image by Patrick Doll via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

In 2017, the European Commission also suggested that member states should attain “Good Environmental Status” for their seas by 2020, as per the commitments of the MSFD. Descriptors for this intention include the maintenance of biological diversity, a decrease in invasive species, sustainability of commercially caught fish, integrity of marine food webs and marine ecosystems, the minimization of human-induced eutrophication, and the reduction of contaminants, plastic pollution and noise pollution. But this goal, which was recognized by the European Commission in 2018 as being somewhat unattainable across all descriptors, wasn’t achieved either.

Another highlighted issue is that the BHDs are quite outdated, and as a result, some threatened species and habitats are not getting the protections they needed.

“They were created about 25 years ago,” the auditor said. “So, in fact, they do not match existing science [and] there are certainly some species and habitats which are not protected because they’re not included in the list of habitats that should be protected.”

The report also found that only a small portion of EU funding was being allocated to marine conservation efforts. For instance, the auditors found that Spain, France, Italy and Portugal only used about 6% of funding from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund for conservation measures linked with the MSFD and the BHDs.

Fish in a marine protected area near Cabo de Palos in the Mediterranean Sea. Image by Marta Terry L. / Flickr.

In the end, the ECA report makes three broad recommendations: the identification and implementation of regulatory and administrative changes necessary to protect sensitive species and habitats; significantly improving protective measures in the Mediterranean Sea; and increasing the potential of EU funding for conservation purposes.

A few days after the publication of the ECA report, the European arm of the NGO Oceana released a review of the EU Mediterranean fisheries regulation, a policy meant to control fishing activities in that body of water. The review found that some countries were frequently trawling in sensitive habitats of seagrass, coralligenous and maërl beds, despite these areas being protected under this policy. Italy was found to be the worst offender, trawling for 7,600 hours in these habitats in 2019. Additionally, the review noted that very few fisheries protected areas (FPAs) had been established in the region, even though the policy required these to be established.

Despite the EU’s many shortcomings highlighted in both the ECA report and the Oceana report, Nicolas Fournier, marine protection campaign director at Oceana EU, said the EU had still taken some positive steps to restore the oceans, particularly in the Atlantic.

“We’ve seen that actual enforcement and changes in fisheries management [resulted] in more stock,” Fournier told Mongabay in an interview. “A lot of progress has been made, but there are still some black spots … in terms of biodiversity. I think we are really falling short of the commitments taken.”

Yellowmouth barracuda (Sphyraena viridensis) near Cabo de Palos in the Mediterranean. Image by Marta Terry L. / Flickr.

With climate action and other environmental policies now being prioritized as part of the European Green Deal, Fournier says he is hopeful that more action will be taken to protect the EU’s marine environment in the coming years.

“We are entering into a new political phase,” Fournier  says. “There is growing attention to these issues … and we really see that the Commission is now getting quite strong on the issue of enforcement and intolerance towards infringement, so that can really help.”

Antonia Leroy, head of ocean policy at WWF Europe, said EU policymakers can begin generating positive change by voting “to bring better traceability to our seafood supply chains and transparency of activities at sea to help protect marine ecosystems and wildlife” in the new year.

“The evidence makes the impacts of unsustainable human activities to marine life and ecosystems clear,” she told Mongabay in an emailed statement. “In light of the European Green Deal and EU Biodiversity Strategy, and as part of the EU’s commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we call on decision makers to better implement the existing EU regulations, including the Common Fisheries Policy, the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directives and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, to make human activities more transparent, build capacities of fishers to transition to low-impact activities and secure a healthy ocean.”


Dureuil, M., Boerder, K., Burnett, K. A., Froese, R., & Worm, B. (2018). Elevated trawling inside protected areas undermines conservation outcomes in a global fishing hot spot. Science, 362(6421), 1403-1407. doi:10.1126/science.aau0561

Banner image caption: School of tuna. Image by United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization/ Danilo Cedrone via Wikimedia Commons (public domain). 

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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