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Our Oceans, Seas and Coasts

Achieve Good Environmental Status

The main goal of the Marine Directive is to achieve Good Environmental Status of EU marine waters by 2020. The Directive defines Good Environmental Status (GES) as:

“The environmental status of marine waters where these provide ecologically diverse and dynamic oceans and seas which are clean, healthy and productive” Article 3

GES means that the different uses made of the marine resources are conducted at a sustainable level, ensuring their continuity for future generations.

underwater landscapeIn addition, GES means that:

  • Ecosystems, including their hydro-morphological (i.e. the structure and evolution of the water resources), physical and chemical conditions, are fully functioning and resilient to human-induced environmental change;
  • The decline of biodiversity caused by human activities is prevented and biodiversity is protected;
  • Human activities introducing substances and energy into the marine environment do not cause pollution effects. Noise from human activities is compatible with the marine environment and its ecosystems.

To help Member States interpret what GES means in practice, the Directive sets out, in Annex I, eleven qualitative descriptors which describe what the environment will look like when GES has been achieved.

  • Descriptor 1. Biodiversity is maintained
  • Descriptor 2. Non-indigenous species do not adversely alter the ecosystem
  • Descriptor 3. The population of commercial fish species is healthy
  • Descriptor 4. Elements of food webs ensure long-term abundance and reproduction
  • Descriptor 5. Eutrophication is minimised
  • Descriptor 6. The sea floor integrity ensures functioning of the ecosystem
  • Descriptor 7. Permanent alteration of hydrographical conditions does not adversely affect the ecosystem
  • Descriptor 8. Concentrations of contaminants give no effects
  • Descriptor 9. Contaminants in seafood are below safe levels
  • Descriptor 10. Marine litter does not cause harm
  • Descriptor 11. Introduction of energy (including underwater noise) does not adversely affect the ecosystem


An improved way of determining Good Environmental Status

The Commission Decision on good environmental status of marine waters, adopted on 17 May 2017, contains a number of criteria and methodological standards for determining good environmental status, in relation to the 11 descriptors of good environmental status laid down in Annex I of the Marine Directive. The Decision also contains specifications and standardised methods for monitoring and assessing marine waters. The Decision is a major stepping stone to establish precise objectives for the achievement of GES within the implementation of the MSFD, thereby providing a picture of the extent to which good environmental status is achieved in the EU's seas and oceans.
It replaces a previous legal instrument from 2010, which was however found by the Commission in its 2014 report to have produced incoherent outcomes in determining good environmental status across the EU. Compared to the previous framework, the new Decision provides for:

  • more flexibility: Member States can focus their efforts on the main problems for their marine waters. They can for example de-select criteria that are not relevant for their seas, or apply a risk-based approach to the implementation of their marine strategies. 
  • comparable and consistent outcomes across Member States: The new framework focuses on measuring the extent to which good environmental status is. This requires the setting of "threshold values", thereby contributing to an improved and clearer way to achieving environmental objectives. 
  • specific situations pertaining to each marine region or subregion: It pushes for more cooperation among Member States in a regional or subregional context, often through the work developed by Member States in Regional Sea Conventions. This not only reduces duplication, but ensures that Member States focus on what is most relevant.
  • facilitating the work of Member States: Through the use of existing obligations under other EU legislation (e.g. Water Framework Directive, Habitats Directive, Birds Directive, Common Fisheries Policy) avoids parallel processes that would otherwise create unnecessary burden.

How it will work?

Criteria and methodological standards help make the descriptors more concrete and quantifiable.

For instance, Descriptor 3 should be assessed using the following criteria and methodological standards :

In the Commission Decision

  • Criterion 1: fishing mortality






  • Criterion 2: the reproductive capacity of the stock




  • Criteria 3: the population age and size distribution

In practice

Fishing, and other human activities affecting populations of commercially exploited fish and shellfish, should not push exploitation beyond the maximum sustainable yield levels, in accordance with the Common Fisheries Policy.


Human activities should allow the spawning stock biomass (fish that are old enough to spawn) to be above levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield, in accordance with the Common Fisheries Policy.


Old age is generally a sign of wellbeing. Therefore fish stocks should have a large proportion of older and larger fish. As this may differ from one marine region to another, threshold levels will be determined by Member States in a regional context.


However the outcome of the assessment on any descriptor by itself does not tell much about the state of the sea. Fish populations, as an example, also form part of a diverse ecosystem. This assessment should therefore also contribute to a more general assessment on the state of biodiversity, as required by the biodiversity and the seabed descriptors.

Challenges ahead: The need for scientific support

submarineA major challenge in the implementation of the Marine Directive is to attain the necessary scientific knowledge of the elements that define the state of the marine environment. Increasing scientific knowledge on the marine environment and its processes is required to adequately achieve the Directive's goal.

This knowledge is being developed, in particular through the EU Strategy for Marine and Maritime Research (COM (2008) 534) as part of the integrated maritime policy framework.
Find out more about research needs and projects on the marine environment.

Useful links

  • "Directive 2008/56/EC establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy (Marine Strategy Framework Directive)"
  • Commission Staff Working Paper, Relationship between the initial assessment of marine waters and the criteria for good environmental status, SEC(2011) 1255 final, Brussels, 14.10.2011
  • Commission Decision of 17 May 2017 laying down criteria and methodological standards on good environmental status