Marine protected areas bring multiple benefits
Significant progress has been made in establishing marine protected areas (MPAs) in Europe’s seas, bringing benefits for both the environment and the economy.
Under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the EU agreed to ensure that 10 % of its coastal and marine areas are protected by 2020. A new European Commission report shows that significant progress has been made towards this goal. In 2012, nearly 6 % of Europe’s seas had already been designated as marine protected areas. Work is ongoing to achieve 10 % coverage by 2020.
Most of these zones are part of Natura 2000, Europe’s network of protected natural areas. While the primary objective of a marine protected area is nature conservation, the report clearly shows that when they are well managed, these areas also provide significant socio-economic benefits. The overall benefits generated by the marine Natura 2000 network reached some €1.5 billion per year in 2011. If marine Natura 2000 coverage were to double, these benefits could increase to €3.2 billion.
The benefits come in various forms. Studies show that in highly protected marine reserves, species density usually increases by more than 100 % and the total biomass of plants and animals by more than 200 %. This enables the areas to help rebuild fish stocks, which in turn generates socio-economic benefits both locally and for neighbouring fisheries. For example, catches in the fisheries surrounding the marine reserve on Spain’s Columbretes Islands, protected under Natura 2000, are now rising by some 10 % a year.
Clean water, healthy habitats and abundant marine biodiversity are also essential
for coastal and marine tourism. The designation of a reserve like the Lyme Bay Special Area of Conservation in the UK shows how protection can bring increased opportunities for recreational activities, with added benefits for the tourism sector. And when the health of the marine environment improves, other marine ecosystem services, such as waste assimilation, coastal protection and flood management, also improve.
Europe’s seas are currently protected under three different schemes, with the Marine Natura 2000 network making the biggest contribution. Regional Sea Conventions, such as HELCOM in the Baltic, can act as another platform, allowing Member States to work together on ecosystem-based approaches to MPA designation and management. Finally, Member States can designate national protected areas for marine features of domestic interest.
While progress has been made, the report indicates considerable scope for expansion, especially where offshore waters are concerned. In 2012, for instance, the marine Natura 2000 network covered one-third of near-shore waters, but less than 2 % of waters offshore. Geographical coverage is also uneven: while more than 18 % of the Greater North Sea and over 12 % of the Baltic Sea are within Natura 2000 sites, less than 2 % of the Ionian Sea, Adriatic Sea and Macaronesia are part of the network.
EU legislation – the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the Habitats and Birds Directives, the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive and the reformed Common Fisheries Policy – include provisions to foster the growth of Europe’s marine protected areas. So, “with a dedicated effort at all levels”, the 10 % target might even be exceeded, according to the report, which is good news for Europe’s seas.