The Squeeze on Europe’s Coastline Continues
Europe’s coastal regions are increasingly vital for its economy, yet their natural assets on which it depends continue to degrade. This is according to a new report from the European Environment Agency, which calls for better information, planning and management decisions to balance multiple demands on the coastal environment.
‘Balancing the future of Europe’s coasts‘, a new report from the European Environment Agency (EEA), argues that Europe needs to improve its knowledge to better understand the long-term damaging effects of current human and economic pressures on the coastal environment, jeopardizing the essential maintenance of the natural capital.
Coastal regions generate around 40 % of EU GDP. Europe is a major player in many intensive maritime industries, including shipping and ports, fisheries, energy and coastal tourism. However, this has come at a cost – habitat destruction, overfishing, pollution, coastal erosion, and infrastructure development have damaged coastal ecosystems.
Moreover, climate change is likely to make these regions – and the societies in them – more vulnerable, the report says. Seas and coasts are currently considered to be drivers for the European economy with great potential for innovation and growth.
Approximately 40 % of the EU population lives within 50 km of the sea, and this is growing – in some parts of the Mediterranean coast in Spain and France, the population has increased by up to 50 % between 2001 and 2011. Growing demand for living space and other needs means that impervious areas such as concrete increased by 5 % between 2006 and 2009, the report says, further breaking up coastal habitats. This expansion was fastest in coastal areas in Cyprus, Norway, Malta and Spain, where areas with sealed soils increased by more than 10 %.
Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director, said: “Europe’s coastline is vital for its economy. But in many areas, its resources are at risk because short-term gains have been prioritised over longer-term sustainable management. For example, some endangered coastal habitats act as natural protection from storm surges. One thing that can help safeguard these habitats is better data and knowledge, particularly as there is a pressing need to adapt to the effects of climate change.”
Multiple pressures on coastal ecosystems
- Habitats are disappearing or being broken up at an accelerating rate, the report says, leading to an alarming decline of ‘ecosystem services’. One example of an ecosystem service is the seagrass Posidonia oceania, which traps millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, helps prevent erosion and is home to hundreds of sea creatures. This habitat has been declining by 5 % a year in the Mediterranean, making it increasingly endangered.
- Many European coastal and transitional water bodies do not achieve high or good quality status. The worst situation is reported from the Baltic Sea, followed by the North Sea and the Black Sea. In coastal waters in the Mediterranean and the open Atlantic coast the situation is better.
- Only 10 % of marine habitats were found to have a ‘favourable’ status, and just 3 % of marine species had a favourable conservation status. The status of many species was unknown, but research has confirmed that the status of at least 50 % of fish species is unfavourable. For example, cod stocks in the Kattegat at the entrance to the Baltic have declined to approximately 6 % of 1971 levels.
- There were nine major oil spills in European waters between 1998 and 2009, and many smaller accidents. Despite a declining number of oil spills, larger volumes of crude oil or oil products are increasingly transported by ship, which poses a significant risk. An increasing amount of litter in the sea is directly harming marine organisms when they eat pieces of rubbish, or become tangled in it. This can also affect human health when plastics ingested by marine organisms enter the food chain.
- In 2002 the European Union recommended Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) to bring together different stakeholders and decision-makers for a more long-term view. Although ICZM principles are increasingly being adopted in the management of coastal areas, progress has not been uniform. Ten years after the recommendation, the European Commission estimated that implementation of ICZM was only about 50 % across the EU as a whole.
Better management of Europe’s coastline
If coastal regions are to continue to power European economies, provide ecosystems services, and remain home to millions of people, they must be managed more cohesively, the report says. This management must also be based on integrated policy, aiming to balance competing interests of human development, while ensuring healthy and resilient coastal ecosystems that much of this development relies on.
The European Commission has recently proposed a framework for integrated coastal management and for ‘maritime spatial planning’, to better manage competing claims and resources at sea. Within this framework, plans and strategies will require high quality data to measure the health of the coastal environment.
Improving the knowledge base
The lack of quality‑assured spatial data hinders effective management, so EU Member States need to make more effort to harmonise their data and make it consistent with the data reported by other countries, the report says. When coastal data is shared across borders and enhanced by coordinated indicator sets, it can give a larger and more refined picture of the wider ecosystem issues, making it easier to implement an ecosystem‑based management approach.