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Europe pushes all-encompassing maritime research

A quiet revolution is taking place in the European Commission's approach to maritime research. The EU is taking concrete steps towards a more sensible and inclusive European Maritime Policy, putting all of its resources in all relevant domains into keeping our seas and oceans healthy, safe and productive.

European coastal waters © Peter Gutierrez
European coastal waters
© Peter Gutierrez

For decades, the European Commission has supported a wide variety of marine-related research activities. Under its Sixth research Framework Programme (FP6), a total of 250 vital projects were funded across 11 thematic priority areas. The largest portion of this support went to maritime transport related research, but a significant part also went towards the marine environment.

Under the current FP7, marine research remains a cross-cutting activity, with significant opportunities for marine-related research in six of the ten FP7 themes, on subjects ranging from food, agriculture and biotechnology to energy, environment, transport, security and space.

Now, with its new Green Paper on European Maritime Policy, the EU is looking to integrate maritime activities, so that actions are more coherent and multidisciplinary, to include all EU departments and all public and private sectors and communities.

A comprehensive approach must include a consistent and unified Marine Research Agenda, to eliminate segregation and duplication and to draw maximum returns on every taxpayer euro invested.

A vast natural resource

Throughout history, the Earth’s vast oceans have been seen as an inexhaustible resource, both in terms of what they can produce and what they can absorb. Spanning over 11 million square kilometres, they are a source of virtually limitless beauty and inspiration, but they are also vital to all life on our planet, providing food and impacting massively on the climate and the air we breathe.

The world’s waters are a powerful economic resource for many communities and states, providing livelihoods in the fishing, tourism and recreation sectors. And our waterways represent a key means of transportation in a rapidly globalising world economy.

Today, over 40% of EU GDP is generated in maritime regions, while almost 90% of the EU’s external trade is carried by sea. Although tourism in coastal areas currently only contributes 5% to GDP, this activity is increasing annually by 3%. In addition, the 1200 ports throughout the continent represent an extremely valuable economic asset.

But the limitations of the world’s waters have become more apparent in recent decades. Eleven of the world's 15 most important fisheries, and 70 percent of commercial fish species are now fully exploited or overexploited. And pollution of coastal waters contaminates many marine species and harms recreation and leisure-based economies.

Making way on a comprehensive Maritime Policy

In 2006 and 2007, the EU Green Paper on Maritime Policy became the basis of a groundbreaking consultation process among maritime players, including organisations, companies, governments and even individual citizens. The aim was to exchange knowledge and experience and identify gaps between maritime-related policy areas.

All European economic activities linked to or having an impact on the seas and oceans were examined, as well as all related policies, with a view to maximising the exploitation of European waters in a sustainable manner.

A key conclusion in this process and a key element in the EU’s new Maritime Policy is the recognition of important commonalities across areas that have previously operated in isolation. Importantly, this includes the work of several European Commission Directorates-General, from Research and Fisheries to Environment, Transport and Enterprise DGs.

Research remains key

The Commission is convinced that research, a horizontal and knowledge-intensive endeavour that cuts across different policy domains, can contribute directly to the objectives of a new European Maritime Policy. At the same time, a coherent policy will benefit the research community, by increasing the visibility and wider dissemination of information on science, technology and development activities, and their impact on society.

The new, more comprehensive and results-oriented approach being taken by the EU with respect to Maritime Policy represents a real revolution, integrating for the first time all of the different policies areas affected by or affecting the world’s seas, oceans and inland waterways.

The new approach is now seen as the only way forward, not just in Europe but also in the world at large, the only way to ensure the sustainable health, safety and productivity of the oceans for today’s and future generations.