Directive begins new era for EU marine protection

After more than five years of consultation, the marine strategy framework Directive was formally adopted in May. The Directive will require member states to adopt measures by 2015 to achieve "good environmental status" for their seas within five years.

EU member states must begin working towards achieving "good environmental status" for their seas by 2020 after the long-awaited marine strategy framework directive was adopted in May.

The Directive will come into force in June, following an agreement struck between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers in November and formal approval of the text by the Council at an Economics and Finance Council meeting on 14 May. Member states must transpose its provisions into national law within two years of its entry into force.

The Directive puts into practice the objectives and principles of the EU thematic strategy on the marine environment, adopted in 2005. It will require member states to "take the necessary measures" to achieve "good environmental status" for all EU seas from 2020.

These must include spatial protection measures, "contributing to coherent and representative networks of marine protected areas, adequately covering the diversity of the constituent ecosystems". Such areas could include special areas of conservation defined under the habitats Directive and special protection areas listed under the birds Directive.

Provisions for the introduction of a UK-wide marine planning system are included in the marine and coastal access bill, which was published for consultation on 3 April (ENDS Report 399, p 34 ). The bill was included in the government’s draft legislative programme for the 2008/09 parliamentary session.

Each member state, in cooperation with others within a region or subregion, will have to develop a national marine strategy. There are four regions covering the Mediterranean, Black and Baltic seas, and the north-east Atlantic. The latter has four subregions, including the Greater North Sea - which encompasses the English Channel - and the Celtic seas.

An action plan for Baltic seas, adopted in November by the ten parties to the Helsinki Commission (eight EU member states, the EU and Russia), is widely seen as a pilot for future regional plans. It covers shipping, eutrophication, toxic chemicals and biodiversity, but has been criticised by environmental groups for lacking measures to address oil spills.

The strategies will contain a detailed assessment of the state of the environment, a definition of good environmental status at regional level and the establishment of clear environmental targets and monitoring programmes. Member states must also draw up programmes of cost-effective measures. Impact assessments, including detailed cost-benefit analysis of the proposed measures, will be required before any new measures are introduced.

Parliament and the Council of Ministers agreed on a compromise text in December. Member states will have to assess the environmental status of their marine waters by 2012, and by 2015 develop a programme of measures to achieve good environmental status within the following five years. But MEPs failed to make good environmental status an explicitly mandatory requirement - something the UK was happy to support (ENDS Report 384, pp 46-47 ).

Greenpeace was disappointed that Parliament "bowed to pressure" from the nuclear, oil and shipping industries and deleted references to nuclear pollution and hazardous substances released from oil platforms, pipelines and ships.

To help countries define good environmental status, the Parliament and Council agreed a list of elements in an annex that the Commission will flesh out. The compromise also included a derogation allowing member states to take no action to improve environmental status if the costs are "disproportionate". But failure to act will not be permitted if it leads to further deterioration of the marine environment or threatens the achievement of overall good status.

The marine strategy Directive is the primary environmental component of the EU integrated maritime policy and accompanying action plan published by the Commission in October. Together they aim to create a single framework to regulate shipping, offshore energy production, carbon capture and storage, tourism, fisheries and environmental protection in European and international waters. There will also be a further strategy on climate change mitigation for coastal areas and a "roadmap towards spatial planning by member states".