Under the sea: Marine biodiversity and habitat loss is an ongoing challenge for Europe’s seas. EU actions have not restored its waters to good environmental status nor fishing to sustainable levels in all seas. What more can the EU do to protect marine life in EU waters?

Committee on Fisheries
Written by: Alice Comoglio (IT)

Relevance of the Topic 

“Listen to me: the human world it’s a mess. Life under the sea is better than anything they got up there”. This might have been true in 2002 when Sebastian the crab sang it in the Little Mermaid, but these days, unfortunately, experts say Sebastian’s song is not holding up so well anymore.

71% of our planet is covered by water, 97% of that consists of seas and oceans; 50% of the atmosphere’s oxygen that we breathe to survive comes from marine plants; more than half of the 5000 pathogen genes of marine organisms are being applied to medicine and human health. Through unsustainable fishing practices, pollution and marine debris, humanity has caused sea levels to rise, oceans to acidify, the climate to change and a loss of biodiversity and habitats. With 99% of European continental waters unprotected from “high-impact activities” such as bottom trawling and industrial-scale extraction, experts say the underwater world’s protection is a widely disregarded topic that lacks attention.

Whether we love the marine ecosystem because we have seen “Finding Nemo” too many times or because we truly care for the sake of the wet part of our planet, all experts agree action is necessary. 

Key Terms & Definitions

  • Biodiversity: is a term used to describe the enormous variety of life on Earth and specifically used to refer to all of the species in one region or ecosystem. It refers to every living thing, including plants, bacteria, animals, and humans. Biodiversity allows the cycle of nature and the survival of whole habitats and sets of species, hence its protection is the objective of many treaties and organisations. The term marine biodiversity refers to the variety of organisms in seas, oceans, etc.
  • Marine protected areas (MPAs): are bodies of water (part of a sea, ocean, estuary or even lake) established by the local government with restricted human activity intended for the long-term conservation of marine resources, ecosystem services, or cultural heritage. It protects marine ecosystems from issues such as overfishing or petroleum drilling, for example, but it can also protect important underwater archaeological sites such as shipwrecks. The level of protection of an MPA can range from uniform multiple-use (that allows extractive activities, like fishing, inside the MPA) to no-access zones that prevent anyone from accessing the area.
  • Bottom trawling: is a method of fishing whereby fish or other sea animals are herded and captured by towing a net along the seafloor. A major issue with trawling is that, besides the fish or crabs the fishermen are looking to catch, many other sea animals find themselves unintentionally caught in the fishing net. This is known as bycatch. Moreover, bottom trawling is also very damaging to seafloor integrity, harming its balanced ecosystem.
  • Bycatch: is the incidental capture of non-target species such as dolphins, marine turtles and seabirds when fishing.
  • Geoengineering: is a type of engineering focussed on manipulating our natural environment in order to counteract the effects of climate change. While it is a very young and promising but also risky field of engineering, experts recognise it could be an essential component in restoring the ecosystems of our rivers, seas and oceans

Key Actors 

Key Conflicts

The protection of marine biodiversity might pose itself as an issue with many solutions. However, some of these attract a subsequent chain of underlying problems.

MPAs are important conservation tools for the restoration of fish biomass and biodiversity, yet, even though countless studies have demonstrated their positive ecological and socioeconomic effects, some factions of society, including fishermen, local villages, climate deniers, as well as some scientists, have argued against their establishment. Some of them (like fishermen and tourism companies) want more scientific evidence to be provided on how they are going to benefit them and their businesses in the short term; other MPAs’ opposers don’t believe they are an efficient way to tackle the problem of overfishing since fishermen are simply going to displace their fishing efforts into a different area. This last issue is in fact a key problem. According to the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture’s report, the number of overfished fisheries has increased from 10% to 33% in only 40 years as a result of the use of new technology for global overfishing. This has led to the rapid depletion of fish stocks making fishermen unintentionally accept new baselines for the size of their fish stocks not knowing that previous ones used to be larger. Altogether fishermen risk losing their jobs. However, at the same time, they are getting to the point of never being able to fish again for the consequences of bottom trawling and overfishing.

However, there are also other issues to tackle. For example, when oil is transported in ocean tankers, when it is used as fuel in ships or around oil platforms or wells there is the possible risk of an oil spill with long-lasting and detrimental consequences (like the total annihilation of healthy flora and fauna plus the high cancer development probability even in humans). Still, having to reduce or stop these activities would have a major financial impact on shipping and oil companies. Moreover, reducing the shipping of oil may lead to an energy crisis for countries that heavily rely on oil for their energy production.

Seaweed farms, which are a refuge habitat for a diversity of marine life and absorb nutrients, coastal pollutants and carbon dioxide to grow, can help improve water quality and buffer the effects of ocean acidification in surrounding areas. However, seaweed is an ingredient in cosmetics, animal feed, and fertiliser so a great part of the seaweed produced is harvested and the habitat creation process has to restart.

Marine mammals such as dolphins or whales, which often serve as indicators for the health of marine ecosystems, are increasingly suffering from diseases caused by human actions like dumping waste at sea. Moreover, reports of stranded marine mammals have greatly increased over the last few years and some of the causes are injuries caused by ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear. In order to halt this effect and restore the health of marine mammals together with the ecosystem, scientists are still evaluating marine geoengineering techniques, which have the potential to mitigate the effects of climate change and other forms of pollution or damage caused by human activities but may have adverse impacts on the marine environment.

Measures in place 

In order to recognise and solve the issues, different bodies and organisations have already set directives or put in place various programmes:

  • Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: At the UN Sustainable Development Summit, in September 2015, the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” was presented, with 17 Sustainable Development Goals at its core. The 14th goal of this list, “Life Below Water”, aims to conserve oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
  • Natura 2000: Born out of the EU Habitats Directive and the LIFE programme in 1992 by the EU, the Natura 2000 Network is the world’s largest coordinated network of protected areas. Even though it includes strictly protected nature reserves, most of the land remains privately owned. The approach to conservation is largely centred on people working with nature rather than against it; Member States must ensure that the sites are managed in a sustainable manner, both ecologically and economically. Today, the Network stretches over 18% of the EU’s land area and more than 9% of its marine territory protecting its natural heritage.
  • Natura 2030 Programme: A long-term IUCN programme set out to “conserve marine resources for the benefit of all”. In addition to providing a more inclusive and extended vision, the Programme defines broad areas of work and sets aspirational targets as well as indicators to measure success.
  • EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy: In line with the European Green Deal, the European Commission adopted this new strategy in June of 2021. The Strategy proposes new measures, such as reducing the use of unhealthy substances, while also expanding existing legislation, such as expanding the areas under the protection of Natura 2000.
  • Nature Restoration Law: The first comprehensive continent-wide law of its kind, it calls for binding targets to restore degraded ecosystems, in particular those with the most potential to capture and store carbon and to prevent and reduce the impact of natural disasters. It was adopted by the European Commission on the 22nd of June 2022 and it aims to restore wetlands, rivers, forests, grasslands, marine ecosystems, and the species they host.

Food for thought 

Seeing the potential benefits of MPAs: how can we ensure their recognition by the governments and local populations? How can they actually be “protected”? And how can we effectively regulate fishing practices while 10% of the world’s population is dependent on the industry? Recognising that our goal is to better protect our marine ecosystems: who will be negatively impacted by their preservation? Is it possible to help them? How can we mitigate the negative aspects while still succeeding? Acknowledging that half of the oxygen we breathe comes from marine plants: how can they be safeguarded? Is it possible to build seaweed farms with the sole aim of restoring the ecosystem and helping the marine habitat? And is marine geoengineering a possible solution or would it only worsen the situation? Taking into account that the topic is multifaceted: regarding the measures already in place, will they have a realistic effect or will they remain dreams on paper?