UK House of Lords: Regional cooperation key to managing North Sea marine environment

The UK House of Lords has declared the North Sea marine environment under ‘severe pressure’ from human activity and blue growth development. The North Sea urgently requires conservation measures to reduce biodiversity loss from these pressures and protect North Sea ecosystem services while allowing sustainable use by North Sea stakeholders.

The House of Lords, as part of their report on EU regional marine cooperation, has called for the development of a ‘holistic approach’ to managing the North Sea’s marine environment and its economic issues, coordinated by the UK. A political and strategic vision, ensuring sustainable use of the North Sea, should also be developed and delivered. .

So how does this fit in with the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), which is already meant to holistically manage the EU’s marine waters? International cooperation is crucial for the delivery of Good Environmental Status (GES) through the MSFD. The MSFD requires GES to be obtained not only for Member States’ marine waters, but also at the regional scale. For the North Sea, that means that, potentially, the UK’s marine environment can be assessed to be in GES while that of an adjoining North Sea country may not be. This situation may arise because Member States have each defined their own visions for GES and set their own environmental targets for achievement. These targets, and the corresponding visions for GES, therefore, are different between Member States. On top of this layer of implementation sits the regional implementation, which, for the biodiversity portion of the Directive, is coordinated by OSPAR, the Northeast Atlantic Regional Sea Commission. The MSFD implementation process started first in the Member States with the OSPAR process taking place a few years later, so that, in OSPAR, we are now in the position of trying to define a regional vision of GES, supported by regional indicators and targets, which may be stricter, or less strict, than that of the individual Member States. When progress toward implementation was reviewed by the European Commission in 2013, the North Atlantic region was found to be the most coherent of the European seas when it comes to developing robust and complementary targets and indicators for Member States, but that there is still ‘significant room for improvement’ of this coherence. This process of developing regional targets and indicators requires extreme political sensitivity and depends on cooperation between Member States which may not always have a history of productively working together.

From my perspective as chair of the pelagic habitats expert group for the OSPAR implementation, there are major obstacles challenging us in delivering regionally cohesive MSFD indicators and targets, including a lack of resources for scientists to be involved in policy, political tensions, and differing scientific views. In fact, Darius Campbell from OSPAR mentions the resource-intensive nature of cross-border collaboration in the report, and the European Commission states that funding opportunities are available, through competitive programmes such as Horizon 2020 and INTERREG. Lack of resources is our single biggest barrier to effective MSFD implementation and, while I am glad to see this acknowledged, I hope some action is taken by the European Commission to better fund our work consistently and directly. Project-based funding to implement the MSFD is not realistic – if all the funding put into FP7 and H2020 projects developing MSFD outside of the political process had been put into the actual implementation of the Directive, we’d be much further along today than we are. Those of us leading the implementation work need access to resources that we can use immediately without having to wait for a funding call, then organise a consortium, apply through a resource-intensive proposal process, and then compete against other consortiums, which are less directly involved in the implementation process than we are at OSPAR, for the funding award. The report recommends “that the European Commission prepare and publish guidance on navigating and accessing the existing funding opportunities” which is fine, but we need readily accessible funding for implementation.

CPR research (Beaugrand et al 2002) shows marine plankton responding to warming oceans through biogeographical shifts.

CPR research (Beaugrand et al 2002) shows marine plankton responding to warming oceans through biogeographical shifts. As North Atlantic sea surface temperature increases, warm-water plankton are shifting northwards, while cold-water taxa are squeezed poleward.

The Committee makes further recommendations (full list here, on page 58) including the establishment of a North Sea Stakeholder Forum, to be led by the UK and funded by the European Commission, to increase cooperation amongst North Sea countries when it comes to managing the marine environment. A similar forum model, funded through various INTERREG projects (such as PEGASEAS), has been used in the Channel to bring together French and English stakeholders, citizens and scientists. These Cross-Channel Forums have been successful in developing and disseminating best practices, increasing cohesion and creating a cross-border sense of community. The Cross-Channel Forums, unfortunately, do not have consistent funding, are project-driven, and not guaranteed to continue in the future. I hope if a North Sea Forum is created, adequate funding is provided to ensure its longevity and, therefore, its impact.

I am very proud that the Committee referenced SAHFOS and our work on plankton biogeographical shifts as a key example of climate change pressure on the North Sea. It is amazing to see our work used in such a high profile policy document! Another exciting point – the Committee recommends a cross-border data collection initiative, led by the European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet). I have been involved with EMODnet Biology for a few years now and one of our primary objectives is to make scientific data useful for decision making. EMODnet is the perfect project to handle the huge amount of data needed to cooperatively manage the North Sea, and both SAHFOS and OSPAR are currently collaborating with the project. Hopefully the European Commission will take the Committee’s advice and increase funding for EMODnet.

These are just some of my initial thoughts on reading the House of Lords report. I am glad the conversation is taking place and sincerely hope action is taken on some of the key recommendations.

Abigail McQuatters-Gollop, Plankton and Policy

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About Abigail McQuatters-Gollop

Marine biologist, guitarist, cat lover, red wine drinker. I like plankton.
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