Coastal management

89 000 km of European Coastline

A third the size of Africa, Europe nevertheless has three times its coastline. Today, human activity along its length is endangering hydric resources, soil stability, marine ecology and – a major concern – water quality. It is to ensure sustained co-existence between man and these natural systems of great variety and complexity that the EU is seeking to implement a policy of Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM). However, given the time it takes to restore natural balances, the new Spicosa (1) project will have to prepare for further deterioration before seeing any actual improvement.

©Shutterstock ©Shutterstock

The fjords of Norway, the lochs of Scotland and the rias of Wales are a spectacular illustration of Europe’s contrasting coastline and of the continent’s varied geography. These heterogeneous natural characteristics give rise to specific environmental conditions and adapted life forms. While providing a habitat for marshland fauna and wild birds – 30 % of Europe’s protected areas are on the coast – the coastline is also home to man and economic activities, the latter resulting in unique rural and urban landscapes that reflect mercantile cultures and an openness to the exterior.

But today’s coastline is changing as never before. Acting as a magnet, it is becoming ever more populated. Almost half of Europe’s population live within 50 km of the sea and exploit its resources, whether through tourism, fishing, aquaculture or industry. These sometimes competing activities threaten natural balances, biodiversity and the cultural identity of coastal areas. Then there is the looming threat of climate change. Rising sea levels, combined with more frequent and more severe coastal storms, suggest serious consequences – especially as these problems often call into question activities that cut across a number of fields, and sectoral policies rarely manage to halt the deterioration.

Integrated but insufficiently proactive management

“Awareness of coastal problems is not new,” explains Denis Bailly, scientific coordinator with Spicosa and deputy director of CEDEM/UBO(2). “It was in the 1970s that the idea of integrated coastal management first emerged, as one in which all the players in a given zone would be involved in getting to grips with the nature of the problems and taking corrective action. In the face of conflicts between urbanisation, tourism and nature conservation, Europe is again turning to this concept and, in 1992, signed the Rio declaration rendering ICZM official.” For a sustainable co-existence of human activity and natural systems, integrated management must take more account of the physical and natural, social and economic, judicial and administrative issues at stake in coastal areas.

However, actually implementing this management is proving difficult, given the variety of the problems faced and the local structures. More often palliative than reparative, action is taken only after changes to the environment have been observed.

Anticipating with Spicosa

To stop irreversible change over time, the EU is trying out a new methodology with the Spicosa project, which has been allocated €10 million between 2007 and 2011. “In the face of imminent degradation and vital losses, we must speed up the decision-making processes with a view to a preventive rather than reparative coastal policy,” stresses the scientific coordinator. The preventive action envisaged by Spicosa is based on future scenarios that will be constructed through more open dialogue, a gathering of information that is sufficiently reliable to support political action, and effective multimedia and virtual tools for cross-referencing scientific and socio-economic data that are too often excessively compartmentalised.

This cross-cutting approach also takes account of collateral effects, such as those of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). “Fiftythree partners, including universities, SMEs and NGOs from 21 EU countries are developing tools to integrate knowledge and support dialogue,” explains Denis Bailly. But Spicosa will also have to take into account the specific characteristics of each coastal zone so that its methodological framework can be applied just as effectively to the dune cordons in Dunkirk, the French Arguin bank and the endless beaches of Portugal.

Delphine d’Hoop

  1. Science and Policy Integration for Coastal System Assessment
  2. Centre of maritime law and economics at the Université de Bretagne Occidentale (FR)


Spicosa, from the Baltic to the Black Sea

©Shutterstock ©Shutterstock

Spicosa’s methodological framework will be tested in September 2007 at 18 sites with very different characteristics. Six of these illustrate the challenges awaiting the researchers.

18 sites studied by the Spicosa researchers.

  1. Gulf of Riga
  2. Gulf of Gdansk
  3. Oder Estuary
  4. Himmerfjarden
  5. Limfjord
  6. Sonderled
  7. Clyde Sea
  8. Cork Harbour
  9. Scheldt Delta
  10. Pertuis Charentais
  11. Guadiana Estuary
  12. Barcelona Coast
  13. Thau Lagoon
  14. Taranto Mare Piccolo
  15. Venice Lagoon
  16. Thermaikos Gulf
  17. Izmit Bay
  18. Danube Delta


The Gulf of Riga, Baltic Sea - Chemical pollution and eutrophication

©Shutterstock Gulf of Riga

In Riga, the largest city on the Baltic and capital of Latvia, 720 000 citizens inhabit the Gulf of Daugava and its highly productive bay that combines a dense population with intense farming, tourism and industrial activities. But this frenetic activity without suitable infrastructure or waste management is polluting the water while eutrophication is a growing problem due to the influx of industrial waste from Riga and other towns, including Pärnu.

The concept of eutrophication originally expressed a richness of nutrients in an aquatic environment. Today it expresses an excess of these nutrients, to such a degree that the system is unable to absorb them quickly enough, consequently slowly transforming the water into marsh. The overfed aquatic plants then capture the sun’s rays and exhaust the stock of oxygen in the water, one that is 30 times that in the air. The environment then becomes first hypoxic, then anoxic, thereby satisfying the conditions for the appearance of noxious gases, such as methane.

As a result, aerobic organisms – insects, crustaceans, fish, marine plants – disappear. The biotope of the bay’s subsystem is changing, as is that of the Gulf’s ecosystem as a whole, in turn effecting changes in the food chain. For those who live on its shores, the situation is urgent: 30% of Latvia’s drinking water fails to meet the country’s chemical standards.


Barcelona, Mediterranean Sea - Urbanisation and the discharge of polluted waters

©Shutterstock Barcelona Coast

In 2006, Spain achieved the record for the fastest rate of coastal urbanisation in Europe. Barcelona, Spain’s second largest urban area in terms of population – 4 million inhabitants – is home to leisure, tourist and commercial centres as well as a few fisheries. These are all activities that stand in contrast to the agriculture and heavy industry located upstream along the rivers Besòs and Llobregat.

These rivers flow through industrial, urban and rural areas, enter the sewage system and discharge onto Barcelona’s continental shelf. In Spain, 13% of wastewater is discharged directly into the sea. In 1979, Barcelona installed a wastewater treatment plant at the mouths of these two rivers. Nevertheless, large quantities of water and particles continue to affect interactions between the land and sea. Bacteria and eutrophication are invading the beaches while the transport and re- suspension of sediment is causing erosion.

In addition, the complete urbanisation of 30 km of coastline is based on a fragile soil of mud and sand, the grains of different size presenting the risk of sliding. Even the collapse of golf courses, for example, would have a major socio-economic impact on neighbouring real estate resources.


Venice, Adriatic Sea - The exploitation of biological stocks

©Shutterstock Venice Lagoon

The city of the Doges and its gondolas attract 14 million tourists a year who join the resident population engaged in port, recreational, industrial, agricultural and fishing activities, thereby influencing the natural dynamics and resilience of this lagoon in the northern Adriatic and damaging its environment.

Fishing has always been an activity for the citizens of Venice. 60 % of Italian clams are taken from the lagoon waters and today there is also fishing for caparozzoli and bivalves with a high commercial value. But the motor boats and mechanization have the effect of breaking down and stirring up the sediment that consequently spends longer in suspension and is swept along by marine currents, carrying nutrients and pollutants along with it. The phenomenon adds to erosion and displaces sediment masses to shallow navigable channels bringing a need for costly dredging operations. This continual working of the sediment also impoverishes the flora and fauna. Ultimately, it is the fishermen themselves who suffer the consequences of these changes to the ecosystem, with a 40 % decline in shellfish production recorded between 1997 and 2001 for example.


The Danube Delta, Black Sea - Tourists blight the landscape

©Shutterstock Danube Delta

The Danube flows through 17 European countries and forms a delta on the Romanian and Ukrainian coasts. A paradise for wildlife that is classified by UNESCO– it is a refuge for migrating birds from Siberia –, this zone of marshes and reed beds is home to a fragile and complex ecosystem that has been preserved by man since antiquity.

Today 15 000 people live in symbiosis with this environment, many of the traditional fishing folk seeming to have escaped the passage of time. But further on, the city of Tulcea is growing, attracting newcomers intent on benefiting from the local tourist attraction. Despite warnings, illegal construction is transforming the landscape. The future roads, factories and water treatment plants and tourism-related services will also bring in their share of workers needing accommodation.

The arrival of foreign investors seeking a quick profit is creating an urgent need for a global strategy to conserve the ecosystem and its attractions.


Oder Estuary, Baltic Sea - Germano-Polish cooperation

©Shutterstock Oder Estuary

Before reaching the sea, the biggest river in the  Baltic region, the Oder, forms a lagoon in two sections: the  Kleines Haff (DE) and the Wielki Zalew (PL). This protected estuary region of great ecological and cultural value is home tofauna of the forest, dunes and marshes as well as exceptional landscapes.

But young people are  abandoning this area of economic decline, however picturesque it may be. The high unemployment – almost 25 % – and disparities in standards of living between Germany and Poland make tourism its main hope, with nature conservation as its basis. Germany and Poland are cooperating to manage the area.

In 2002, the two environment ministers signed the “Agenda 21 – Oder lagoon – Two nations region”, setting identical objectives to those of the ICZM. Ten fields of action place sustainable development and coastal management at the centre of this  cooperation. A Forum 21 sets out and implements the priorities – scientific and educational cooperation and sustainable tourism – and enables German and Polish citizens and representatives to cooperate actively by sharing their results and supporting their applications.


Cork Harbour, North Sea - Biodiversity in the face of rising sea levels

©Shutterstock Cork Harbour

Against the backdrop of 17th century fortifications, the natural harbour of Cork lies adjacent to one of Ireland’s  main industrial areas. As the country’s second port, it is home to a refinery and about 100 pharmaceutical industries, including the giants Pfizer, Novartis and Janssen Pharmaceutica.

The biological richness of the coastal ecosystem also benefits tourism and fishing. The lines catch trout, salmon and cod while there are also the large nurseries plus shellfish and oyster farming.

But farming on neighbouring land and the port activities are placing undue strain on the environment. Agriculture, for example, is increasing concentrations of phosphorous and nitrogen in the water, with a disastrous impact on aquaculture.

More globally, the threat of climate change is likely to affect the region severely. Rising sea levels combined with more frequent and severe storms are a direct threat to the harbour. This is all the more the case as the waters of five rivers flow into the harbour and a 15% increase in winter rainfall is predicted. These factors will erode the Cork coastline which is made up of  unconsolidated sediment. There is an urgent need for simulation models and potential scenarios to establish a long-term strategy.


To find out more