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Our Oceans, Seas and Coasts

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive

The aim of the European Union's ambitious Marine Strategy Framework Directive is to protect more effectively the marine environment across Europe.

picture illustrating a big waveThe Marine Strategy Framework Directive was adopted on 17 June 2008.

The Commission also produced a set of detailed criteria and methodological standards to help Member States implement the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. These were revised in 2017 leading to the new Commission Decision on Good Environmental Status.

Annex III of the Directive was also amended in 2017 to better link ecosystem components, anthropogenic pressures and impacts on the marine environment with the MSFD's 11 descriptors and with the new Decision on Good Environmental Status.

The Commission adopted a report on the first implementation cycle of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive in June 2020.  This report, required by Article 20 of the Directive shows that while the EU’s framework for marine environmental protection is one of the most comprehensive and ambitious worldwide, it needs to be beefed up to be able to tackle predominant pressures such as overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices, plastic litter, excess nutrients, underwater noise and others types of pollution


The quality status of Europe’s seas portrays a mixed picture. For example some species show signs of recovery (e.g. white-tailed eagles in the Baltic Sea), while others show steep deterioration (40% of elasmobranchs in the Mediterranean). While fishing effort has decreased in the North-east Atlantic, about 79% of Europe’s coastal seabed and 43% of the shelf/slope area is physically disturbed, mainly caused by bottom trawling. 46% of Europe’s coastal waters are still subject to intense eutrophication. While EU rules regulating chemicals have led to a reduction in contaminants, we see an increased accumulation of plastics and plastic chemical residues in most of the marine species. More examples are provided in the report and its annexes.

The Directive has nevertheless pushed for a better understanding of the pressures and impacts of human activities on the sea, and their implications for marine biodiversity, their habitats, and the ecosystems they sustain. The knowledge gained from implementing this Directive was for example a driving force leading to the adoption of the Single use Plastics Directive.  It has led to increased cooperation among littoral Member States of the four European sea regions, as well as across marine regions. As a result non-EU Member States also aim to achieve good environmental status or its equivalent. Still, EU Member States could further improve their coordination, namely in determining the coordinated objectives and targets and having effective measures tackling the right pressures. The EU has surpassed the Aichi target for marine protected areas, but these need to be ecologically meaningful, with management measures in place.


The new EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 (adopted in May 2020) aims to strengthen the protection of marine ecosystems and to restore them to achieve “good environmental status”, including through the expansion of protected areas and the establishment of strictly protected areas for habitats and fish stocks recovery. It stresses the need for an ecosystem-based approach to the management of human activities at sea. This means addressing the overexploitation of fishing stocks to or under, Maximum Sustainable Yield levels (i.e. a level that will allow a healthy future for the fish stock’s biomass); eliminating bycatch, or at least reducing it to non-dangerous levels, in order to protect sea mammals, turtles and birds, especially those that are threatened with extinction or in bad status; and tackling practices that damage the seabed. Further information here.

Article 23 of the MSFD sets an obligation to review the Directive by 2023 and, where appropriate, propose any necessary amendments. The review of the MSFD will follow a back-to-back evaluation and impact assessment. The European Commission has launched this review with the publication of a combined roadmap/inception impact assessment 8 April 2021. The Commission launched the public consultation on 22 July 2021. It is open for feedback until 21 October 2021.

Concretely, what is the aim of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and how does it work?

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive aims to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) of the EU's marine waters by 2020 and to protect the resource base upon which marine-related economic and social activities depend. It is the first EU legislative instrument related to the protection of marine biodiversity, as it contains the explicit regulatory objective that "biodiversity is maintained by 2020", as the cornerstone for achieving GES.

The Directive enshrines in a legislative framework the ecosystem approach to the management of human activities having an impact on the marine environment, integrating the concepts of environmental protection and sustainable use.

In order to achieve its goal, the Directive establishes European marine regions and sub-regions on the basis of geographical and environmental criteria. The Directive lists four European marine regions – the Baltic Sea, the North-east Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea – located within the geographical boundaries of the existing Regional Sea Conventions. Cooperation between the Member States of one marine region and with neighbouring countries which share the same marine waters, is already taking place through these Regional Sea Conventions.

In order to achieve GES by 2020, each Member State is required to develop a strategy for its marine waters (or Marine Strategy). In addition, because the Directive follows an adaptive management approach, the Marine Strategies must be kept up-to-date and reviewed every 6 years.

What does a Marine Strategy include?

    • The initial assessment of the current environmental status of national marine waters and the environmental impact and socio-economic analysis of human activities in these waters
    • The determination of what GES means for national marine waters
    • The establishment of environmental targets and associated indicators to achieve GES by 2020
    • The establishment of a monitoring programme for the ongoing assessment and the regular update of targets
    • The development of a programme of measures designed to achieve or maintain GES by 2020
    • The process is cyclical and the second cycle started in 2018.

ges 2020

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What about climate change?

image foodClimate change is already affecting the marine environment and will continue to trigger changes in biological, chemical and physical processes. Such changes can reduce the ‘ecosystem resilience’ (i.e. the ability of an ecosystem to persist despite disruption and change) to other man-induced pressures, leaving ecosystems increasingly sensitive to disruption. Impacts include rising sea levels, increased sea temperatures, precipitation changes, and ocean acidification.

Although some of the likely impacts of climate change in marine and coastal regions can be anticipated, the extent and location of these impacts is more difficult to predict with any certainty. Little is known for example about the effect of ocean acidification on carbon sequestration and consequential effects on marine foodweb and ecosystems.

Marine strategies in some coastal areas will need to identify ways of adapting to the effects of global warming and to reduce the vulnerability of natural and human systems to climate change effects.

Towards the adoption and implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive

  • 2005:
    Commission Communication, Thematic Strategy on the Protection and Conservation of the Marine Environment, COM(2005)504 final
  • Proposal for a Directive establishing a Framework for Community Action in the field of Marine Environmental Policy (Marine Strategy Directive), COM(2005) 505 final
  • Commission Staff Working Paper, Impact Assessment – Annex to the Communication on the Thematic Strategy and Proposal for a Directive establishing a Framework for Community Action in the field of Marine Environmental Policy, SEC(2005) 1290
  • 2008:
    Directive 2008/56/EC of 17 June 2008 establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy (Marine Strategy Framework Directive)
  • 2010:
    Commission Decision of 1 September 2010 on criteria and methodological standards on good environmental status of marine waters
  • 2011:
    Commission Staff Working Paper on the Relationship between the initial assessment of marine waters and the criteria for good environmental status
  • 2014:
    Report from the Commission of 20 February 2014 on The first phase of implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC) The European Commission's assessment and guidance (and Annex)

  • 2015:
    Marine Protected Areas Report (and annex) shows significant progress in establishing protected areas in Europe's seas, with benefits for the economy and the environment.

Understanding the Marine Strategy Framework Directive