Who cares about the Marine Strategy Framework Directive?

Europe’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) is the most important piece of marine legislation that you have never heard of (unless you’re interested marine conservation). More encompassing than the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, which is often cited in the news due to its influence on EU Member State fishing quotas, the MSFD addresses multiple aspects of the marine environment which are linked to all European citizens, particularly those of us living near the coast. Though important, expansive and multi-faceted, the MSFD is seldom mentioned in the press and rarely grabs headlines; actually I tried to find any mention of the MSFD in the press while writing this post and only found two brief mentions in the Guardian (one from 2013 and one from 2011). Additionally, I find it shocking how many members of the European marine science community know nothing about this Directive.

The MSFD is a revolutionary piece of legislation – it is unique and truly forward-thinking in nature. Previously, the European marine environment was managed in a piecemeal fashion – Europe had one Directive to manage commercial fish, one for birds, and another for habitats (managing the habitats separately from the organisms who reside in them!). When it came to eutrophication (nutrient pollution) there was a Directive to regulate nitrates, another to regulate phosphates, and a third to manage land-based nutrients and their impacts in coastal waters. As you can imagine, this was not exactly a joined-up approach, and the result was inter-Directive inconsistencies, conflicts and gaps. In the mid-2000s the European Commission recognized the need for a holistic, integrative solution and in 2008 the MSFD came into force. The MSFD is remarkable because it requires the implementation of an ‘ecosystem approach’. An ecosystem approach, though not defined in the Directive itself (sneaky! more on that later), is a management methodology which considers the entire ecosystem, including its human component. In other words, the MSFD isn’t trying to manage European marine ecosystems back to a pristine, and likely unachievable, state, but seeks to achieve marine systems that allow sustainable use while still maintaining structure and function.

The objective of the MSFD is (deceptively) simple: to achieve Good Environmental Status in European seas by 2020. The Directive does this by setting out 11 high level, qualitative descriptors of Good Environmental Status (GES): Sagres

  1. Biodiversity
  2. Non-indigenous species
  3. Commercial fisheries
  4. Food webs
  5. Eutrophication
  6. Seafloor integrity
  7. Hydrographical conditions
  8. Contaminants
  9. Contaminants in seafood
  10. Marine litter
  11. Energy and noise pollution

A vision of Good Environmental Status must be articulated for each descriptor, environmental targets representing Good Environmental Status set, and indicators developed which can be monitored towards the environmental targets. Management measures (restrictions on activities such as fishing or pollution, establishment of a network of Marine Protected Areas, etc) are then be used to manage human activities in order to reach those targets.

So, all we have to do is figure out what we want the ecosystem to be like, figure out how to get there, and then do it. Simple, right?

But of course – implementation of the MSFD is proving to be far from simple. There are multiple reasons for this, a few of which I’ll outline here. Firstly, the authors of the MSFD were very clever – they used lots of important terms, which have become a part of the vernacular for those of us working at the science-policy interface, without defining their meanings or providing guidance for interpretation in the Directive text! These include ‘Good Environmental Status’, ‘ecosystem-based approach’, ‘ecologically coherent’ network of Marine Protected Areas, and ‘baseline’. The act of articulating Good Environmental Status alone is a minefield – ‘good’ for whom? how good is good? what about ‘good enough’? how about ‘as good as we can afford in an economic downturn’?  (see here for more insights into the societal dilemma of defining visions of GES). The European Commission provides virtually no guidance on defining GES, yet requires European Member States to set legally-binding targets to achieve it. These vagaries have led to much debate in Europe about exact definitions and interpretations, and whether decisions and actions are ‘in the spirit of the Directive’.

Implementation is also complicated because the MSFD is a comprehensive directive, covering many diverse subjects which are linked to various fields of science and disparate commercial sectors. For example, the Directive is meant to complement rather than usurp previous legislation, such as the Water Framework Directive and the Common Fisheries Policy. The actual detail of these inter-Directive relationships is complex. The CFP manages commercial fisheries while the MSFD manages non-commercial fish, the ecological aspects of commercial fish and the critical habitats required by both commercial and non-commercial fish. Grey areas have naturally developed along the boundaries of these two legislative instruments. What if, for instance, the MSFD establishes a habitat protection measure which interferes with commercial fishing activities governed by the CFP? How will the conflict be resolved? From a Water Framework Directive (WFD) perspective – should we use the same indicators of Good Ecological Status as for Good Environmental Status? How much sense does this make with the WFD only applies to waters 1 nautical mile from shore and the MSFD operates at a regional sea scale? Coastal communities are so different from offshore communities, are the same indicators appropriate? Don’t different pressures act at those different scales?

In my opinion, as a scientist who spends almost all of her professional time working on implementation of the MSFD, climate change is the greatest challenge to implementation of the Directive. (My super-scientific measure of ‘greatest’ here is that, in science-policy meetings, we spend more time arguing talking about climate change impacts than we spend arguing talking about anything else). The MSFD is not meant to manage climate change – there is nothing in the MSFD about reducing carbon emissions. Yet, any vision of Good Environmental Status articulated now for Europe’s marine ecosystems must account for the impact of climate change. How could we set a target, for example, of a 50% increase in cod, when cod stocks are under pressure not only from commercial fishing, which we can manage, but also from changes in the habitat and prey due to climate change, which is not manageable at MSFD time scales? As part of the MSFD process we must set targets which accommodate climate change, but trigger management action when not met due to a manageable pressure. Developing indicators and setting targets which are responsive to manageable pressures but robust to climate change is our greatest scientific implementation challenge.

There are many political implementation challenges, but I’ll leave those for another blog post (or five)….

So there are challenges to effectively implementing the MSFD, but these are not insurmountable. The MSFD uses adaptive management which allows the adjustment of indicators and targets as the science progresses, data time-series increase in length, or societal priorities change. This means that if we scientists or policy makers make a decision now which is found later to be incorrect or improvable, we have the opportunity to rectify the problem, whether that means developing a new indicator, setting a more realistic target or strengthening a management measure. We can do something to manage our marine environment now, acting on the information we have currently, whether than waiting until we have ALL the information! Lack of data or lack of a fully developed scientific evidence base is no longer an excuse for inaction. The idea of not being “locked in” to a mistake allows for true learning-by-doing, and ultimately increases the likelihood of achieving Good Environmental Status.

The MSFD is an important piece of European legislation – it’s important to European citizens as well as the scientific and policy communities. The MSFD seeks to restore marine ecosystems where needed and sustainably manage the aspects of the marine environment that European citizens care about – a healthy ecosystem which we can use for commercial and recreational purposes and which will be in as good as or even a better state for future generations than it is now. The MSFD is what will allow our children and grandchildren to dive on biologically diverse reefs, eat native fish, sail on waters free from nutrient pollution, and experience dolphins and whales in their natural habitats.

Can you believe you’ve (probably) never heard of this directive?

Abigail McQuatters-Gollop, Plankton and Policy


The MSFD and I have a long and sordid past, according to social media.



About Abigail McQuatters-Gollop

Marine biologist, guitarist, cat lover, red wine drinker. I like plankton.
This entry was posted in biodiversity, Knowledge Exchange, Marine Conservation, MSFD, OSPAR, Plankton, Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Who cares about the Marine Strategy Framework Directive?

  1. Lorraine Archer says:

    Great blog Abigail


  2. Thanks for sharing it and it it means the EU has some good initiatives in place for the protection of our precious planet .


    • Abigail McQuatters-Gollop says:

      That’s how I think of it, too. It’s so interesting to visit other regions and see what they are (not) doing. I am pretty proud of the EU’s use of the ecosystem approach!


  3. Kim Holt says:

    As a recent transplant to the UK (from the Caribbean), I enjoyed the summary clarifications and insights offered in this article. My background is in CZMT and MSP, and I familiarized myself with the MSFD before my move, kind of required reading. It is nice to get an insiders local perspective on what has been a problem across the world when it comes to implementing ambitious and (intentionally?) vague marine resources management plans.


    • Abigail McQuatters-Gollop says:

      HI Kim, I’m a transplant too (American). Luckily I’ve been in the UK for the whole MSFD process and I’m pretty proud of the EU’s move towards a holistic marine management approach. Good luck in your new home 🙂


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