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Our Oceans, Seas and Coasts

FAQ: (under development)

The following questions and answers are based on submitted by Members of the European Parliament to the Commission. They represent only a small selection of the many questions asked by MEPs on the topic of the protection of our marine environment. The selection presented is structured around two main topics: marine litter and regional cooperation against marine pollution.

The question is in italic and the answer provided by the Commission right underneath.

Subject: Waste and litter in the marine environment

To assist its implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC) the Commission received in April 2010 the Joint Research Centre’s report on Marine Litter. This made clear that the volumes of waste articles in the sea, primarily of plastic material, are increasing rapidly and will remain in existence for centuries, presenting ever increasing problems due to their accumulation.

The report indicated that social, economic and ecological harm is being caused to marine species by the ingestion of waste material, by the possible release of toxic substances from them, and also through killing by ‘ghost’ fishing nets that are constantly being discarded yet remain in existence beneath the waters of the oceans.

It pointed out that within the EU there is a complete lack of national legislation intended to control the discard and subsequent accumulation of marine litter despite the evidence that it is proving to be severely detrimental to marine species.

When does the Commission intend to come forward with legislative proposals in response to this report?

As you rightly pointed out, JRC produced in April 2010 a report on Marine Litter to contribute to the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. It did indeed show that the volume of waste in the sea is increasingly with a worrying speed, and that this causes serious social, economic and ecological damage. It also mentioned that marine pollution stems from many sources such as municipal landfills, untreated sewage discharges, coastal industries, tourism, shipping, fishing, aquaculture etc. Moreover, it made clear that the distribution and abundance of litter is influenced by its origins and drift as well as by its fate as a consequence of rainfall, rivers, currents, winds and geomorphological factors. Overall, the main conclusion of this report is that marine litter is a very complex issue.

In response to the JRC report, the Commission has identified, as an indication for Good Environmental Status (GES), 4 criteria related to the monitoring of the amount and source of marine litter. The GES criteria, required by the legally binding Marine Strategy Framework Directive, are set out in the Decision 2010/477/EU of 1st September 2010. MS are obliged to report on these criteria in 2012 and must propose strategies to address the issue of marine litter by 2014 at the latest. However, it is the responsibility of Member States to come up with strategies and actions in order to achieve Good Environmental Status in 2020. At this stage, further legislative proposals in response to this report are not foreseen.

Subject: Plastic waste patch in the North Pacific Gyre

  • Is the Commission aware of the so-called ‘plastic soup’, a patch of plastic waste in the North Pacific Gyre in the Pacific Ocean?
  • Does the Commission plan to take any action to deal with this problem and does the Commission know which sectors or groups in our society are mainly responsible for the problem?
  • Does the Commission believe that the sectors responsible should contribute to the cleanup?
  • Does the Commission agree that the cause of the ‘plastic soup’ is the way plastic waste is dealt with by society, including the EU and its Member States?
  • Does the Commission agree that the problem will not be solved by cleaning the ‘soup’ but that the cause of it should be tackled?
  • Would the Commission also strive to take an integral approach by introducing several measures on various levels, of course without bypassing basic principles of the Union such as subsidiarity and proportionality, by increasing the use of biodegradable plastic, providing the financial incentives needed for such policies and fostering innovation?

The Commission is indeed aware of the increasingly large mass of plastic waste gathering in the North Pacific Gyre and commonly known as the Plastic Soup. Attention was notably drawn to this issue by the intervention of the Dutch Minister during the European Council of Ministers for Environment of 21 October 2009 and the following report on the Lisbon Agreement on 12 November, drafted by the EP Environment Committee rapporteur Ms Anna Rosbach. However, the Plastic Soup is a very complex issue. In tackling this Great Garbage Patch, we must avoid hasty conclusions and finger-pointing. As pointed out in the reply to the written question E-0104/10 by Caroline Lucas, it is very difficult to attribute responsibility for the accumulated waste. Hence the matter would need to be addressed and solved internationally.
Different sources of marine litter are being tackled in different ways by the international community. Concerning garbage from ships, legally binding action has been agreed in the context of the International Maritime Organisation and it is acknowledged that one main underlying problem is the insufficiency of adequate port reception facilities worldwide. Concerning land-based pollution, a series of measures have been adopted in the framework of the UN Global Programme of Action, but their implementation in certain regions (notably Africa, Asia and Latin America) will depend on increased international assistance for waste management.

While the Commission is concerned with the worrying magnitude of the Pacific Gyre Plastic Soup, it is also aware that this issue is not limited to the Pacific Ocean. In relation to the seas around Europe, including in particular the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, a series of commitments and actions have already been adopted in the context of regional sea conventions (such as OSPAR and Barcelona Convention, respectively), often with a focus on problems created by marine litter in the coasts.

Despite these useful regional measures, the Commission considers that marine environmental concerns, including marine litter need to be addressed further within the European legal framework. This has led to the recent adoption of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (Directive 2008/56/EC), identifying the building up of adequate knowledge as an underlying priority for the effective protection of the marine environment, as there is insufficient data on key concerns such as plastic waste in European seas. For this reason, the first obligation on Member States under the directive will be to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the status of the marine environment in their waters, including impacts and pressures.

At this stage, the Commission has no plans to make it compulsory to use biodegradable plastics for goods which constitute typical litter. However, in 2009 the Commission launched a study aiming to assess the environmental threats stemming from plastic waste. The issue of the ‘plastic soups’, as well as plastic litter and the potential use of biodegradable plastics will also be looked at in this study. Moreover, the Commission is also in regular contacts with the plastics industry which is concerned by the negative image the ‘plastic soups’ gives them and willing to engage in finding a solution to address this problem.

Only after in-depth scrutiny of the currently available scientific information and active consultation of all stakeholders can we hope to offer concrete proposals to help get rid of the plastic soup and remove its sources.

Subject: Pollution in the Mediterranean

According to research carried out by the French Research Institute for Exploration of the Sea (IFREMER), 500 tonnes of plastic bags are floating in the waters of the Mediterranean.

This problem is well-known in the Mediterranean, since fishermen’s nets and coastlines are frequently covered in plastic bags, increasing risks to human health and the danger of destroying marine resources. What measures does the Commission intend to take to remove plastic bags from the Mediterranean coast and protect it from this pollution?

Does it intend to use its budget more effectively to inform the European public, to protect marine resources and to address the effect of pollution on health?

The Commission is very concerned with the issue raised by the Honourable Member. Marine Litter is one of the emerging topics of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) which aims at achieving Good Environmental Status (GES) in European marine waters in 2020. With respect to actions addressing the use of plastic bags, the Commission shall shortly launch a study to analyse the scale of the problem and assess possible solutions.

The issue is also high on the agenda of the Barcelona Convention, where a regional strategy for the Integrated Management of Marine Litter in the Mediterranean is under preparation.

Subject: Results of a SESAME survey

An article in the online edition of the Greek newspaper Kathimerini (9 May 2011) has reported that, according to a SESAME scientific survey carried out over four years by research centres in 21 countries, the environment of the Mediterranean is changing, and its biodiversity and viability in general are endangered. In particular, a temperature increase, an increase in the number of jelly fish and a reduction in the number of fish of many species mean that the future is bleak.

The following problems also need to be addressed: the presence of new species which are foreign to the Mediterranean, the increase in the occurrence and spread of harmful algae, industrial and chemical effluent, the dumping of waste, pollution by oil from maritime transport and the pollution and erosion of coastal areas.

  • Does the Commission believe that the action of UNEP/MAP is sufficient to address the increasing problems of the Mediterranean?
  • Given that all coastal states and relevant organisations must cooperate, does it believe that there is a need for a new Barcelona summit to discuss tehw hole issue and adopt mandatory rules based on viable choices?

The Commission is aware of the problems in the marine environment of the Mediterranean and collaborates closely with the Mediterranean Member States for assisting them in implementing the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC), which aims at addressing the various concerns mentioned by the Honourable Member. The Directive requires Member States to take measures to achieve good environmental status in EU marine waters by 2020. It is expected that the initial assessment of the marine environment, that the EU Member States must submit by July 2012, will confirm and describe in detail the challenges mentioned by the Honourable Member. This assessment and the environmental targets that will be set by Member States will pave the way for elaborating appropriate monitoring programmes and programmes of measures in accordance with the Directive. The Commission agrees with the Honourable Member that efficient cooperation is necessary and the need is reflected in the EU Marine Directive, which calls explicitly for regional cooperation.

In the Mediterranean this regional collaboration takes place in the context of the Barcelona Convention for the protection of the marine and coastal environment of the Mediterranean, a multilateral environmental agreement under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The EU, along with 21 countries that have a Mediterranean Sea shoreline, is a contracting Party to this Convention and is represented by the Commission.

The Mediterranean countries in the context of the Barcelona Convention have adopted and implemented during the last decades a number of monitoring programmes, strategies and actions plans to reduce pollution and preserve biodiversity, some of which have a legally binding character. The recently adopted and gradually implemented Ecosystem Approach to the management of human activities within the Barcelona Convention follows a conceptual approach similar to the EU Marine Directive and is expected to provide coherence and a new impetus to the abovementioned activities, thus increasing their efficiency and sustainability.

The Commission believes that the measures to be undertaken under the EU Marine Directive and the Barcelona Convention, carefully coordinated with global measures (such as the implementation of the biodiversity commitments undertaken last year in Nagoya), provide the appropriate framework for preserving the ever-threatened but still rich and valuable Mediterranean marine ecosystem. The effectiveness of current policies will obviously depend ultimately on the capability and willingness of the Mediterranean countries to implement them. In this respect the Commission believes that, rather than creating new structures, it is advisable to continue to provide assistance for correct implementation to the countries which need it and to the institutions which are essential for progress.

Contact us if you also have a question about what the European Commission does to protect our marine environment!