Monday, 20 December 2010

Biodiversity can’t be lost at sea

The EU committed itself to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010. Clearly that target has not been met, and marine biodiversity continues to steadily decline. The main reasons for this failure were threefold: lack of political will to prioritise biodiversity protection, lack of intermediate milestones to assess progress towards the 2010 target, and lack of integration of biodiversity considerations into sectoral policies.

The Council has recently endorsed a new and ambitious target to halt biodiversity loss and restore, where possible, lost or damaged ecosystems by 2020. Meeting this new deadline will be no simple task, and it will demand that the EU seriously addresses the shortcomings which caused the 2010 failure.

A key tool for meeting this deadline will be the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), whose aim is to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) in EU marine waters by 2020. The Directive not only mentions that biodiversity must be maintained, it also specifically identifies certain sectoral problems which must be addressed in order to achieve GES. Key among these are overfishing and the accumulation of waste at sea. These problems can only be solved if European policy makers are, firstly, honest enough to acknowledge their magnitude and, secondly, ambitious enough to impose bold measures.

The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has resulted in 88% of assessed European fish stocks being overfished, and 30% being outside safe biological limits. The CFP has failed not only in environmental terms, but also in social and economic terms. The European Parliament and the Council must take the opportunity posed by the CFP reform to reverse this. Healthy seas are a prerequisite for abundant fish stocks and thriving fishing communities – therefore, the environment must be at the heart of the reformed CFP. This entails providing preferential access to fish resources to appropriately-scaled community-based fisheries, using ecologically responsible fishing practices. Bold decisions are needed - nothing short of a radical overhaul of the CFP will do.

Marine litter is a different, yet also manageable problem. Its impact is obvious; from the harm it can cause through entanglement through to the absorption of micro plastics into foods chains by smaller organisms, its effect is shocking. Seas At Risk’s work is particularly concerned with litter sourced from ships. In this, the EU must impose a number of measures, such as having a fee structure in place across European ports that incentivises ships not to dump waste at sea and enforces adequate port reception facilities for ship waste.

Nevertheless, all our efforts to halt the loss of marine biodiversity will be hindered by the effects of climate change. Changes in the physical properties of oceans and seas are already impacting marine life. Ocean acidification is threatening the survival of several organisms, and the knock-on effects on food webs mean that it is only a matter of time before larger marine organisms are threatened. In light of the stumbling climate negotiations, the EU must increase its own efforts to bring about strong GHG cuts across Europe and use this to further incentivise cuts in other countries.

The Parliament, the Council, and the Commission have their work cut out when it comes to protecting marine biodiversity. I just hope that this UN International Year of Biodiversity has made all three institutions fully aware of the problem, and that all three act in unison to protect not only our seas, but our futures too.

By Monica Verbeek

The article is an edited version of a piece that first appeared in the Parliament Magazine earlier this year.