Questions and Answers on Action Plan to protect and restore marine ecosystems for sustainable and resilient fisheries
Why do we need this action plan?
Today, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) cover only 12% of EU seas, and not all of them are effectively managed. Less than 1% are strictly protected. This is not enough to face widespread biodiversity loss and climate change impacts.
The action plan proposed today by the Commission will contribute to the effective management of MPAs, and thereby to the target of legally and effectively protecting 30% of EU seas by 2030 set under the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 - a flagship initiative under the European Green Deal, supported by the European Parliament and the Council. This will also respond to the commitments the EU made in the historic agreement reached at COP15 in Montreal on a new global biodiversity framework. This action plan presents concrete actions to restore marine ecosystems and to reduce the impact of fishing activities on the marine environment.
By protecting and restoring marine ecosystems, including fish spawning and nursery areas, this action plan will help safeguard the source of living for fishing communities, their future, as well as that of our society as a whole. It contains several actions to ensure a fair and just transition for the fisheries and communities which will be impacted in the short term.
The action plan also aims to foster increased cooperation between fisheries and environmental authorities, at all governance levels - national and local, regional and at EU level. Better dialogue and closer cooperation and coordination between the two communities is necessary to implement the relevant EU fisheries and environmental legislation more efficiently and coherently for the benefit of all.
What does the action plan propose?
The action plan is part of the Commission's efforts to achieve a more consistent implementation of the EU's environmental policy and the common fisheries policy with its three sustainability pillars – environmental, economic and social. It seeks to accelerate the transition to more sustainable fishing practices by:
- using more selective fishing gear and practices in commercial fishing to reduce the catch of juvenile fish, and therefore increase the chances for fish stocks to reproduce and maintain their populations in the wild;
- using technological innovations and practices aimed to prevent the incidental catches of sensitive species; and
- gradually phasing out bottom fishing in all MPAs by 2030, in view of their key role in restoration of marine biodiversity and the importance of the seabed for healthy marine ecosystems and climate change mitigation.
This transition needs to be supported by easily accessible funding, by scientific work to develop and promote innovative fishing techniques and by a strong governance framework that allows for dialogue across the fisheries and environmental communities.
What actions are proposed to protect threatened species?
The action plan proposes several actions that should reduce the incidental catches of threatened species, most of which are already protected by EU law. It sets a timetable to help Member States prioritise those species that require most protection.
It proposes to first tackle, as soon as this year, those species in dire situation. These are the harbour porpoise in the Iberian Atlantic, the Baltic and the Black Seas and the common dolphin in the Bay of Biscay.
In 2024, it then focuses on angel shark, common skate, guitarfish, Maltese skate, great white shark, sand tiger shark, smalltooth sand tiger shark, spiny butterfly ray, sturgeons, marine turtles, Balearic shearwater and Mediterranean monk seal.
Finally, by 2030, Member States will need to put in place measures that reduce or eliminate incidental capture of all species in unfavourable conservation status or threatened by extinction and protected under EU law, and any other sensitive marine species in need of protection.
In order to achieve these targets, the Commission calls on Member States to adopt national measures or to propose joint recommendations, adapted to the different conditions in each marine region. Designating and effectively managing MPAs is another tool that needs to be used to fully protect these species.
Will the Commission prohibit all bottom fishing activities in all EU waters?
No. Bottom fishing, in particular bottom trawling, has significant impact on the seabed, but it is possible to continue bottom fishing in certain parts of EU waters while still protecting large and ecologically important areas of the seabed. Most bottom fishing takes place on certain specific core fishing grounds, while in other wider areas fishing intensity is lower. With efficient management, seabed ecosystems can be protected while maintaining core fishing activities with bottom fishing in other areas and even enhancing the catches in the long term.
The Commission is calling on Member States to prioritise the phasing out of bottom fishing in Natura 2000 sites under the Habitats Directive that protect the seabed and marine species. Member States should do this by adopting national measures, or – where other Member States have a direct management interest in the fisheries affected by such measures - by submitting proposals for joint recommendations to the respective regional groups by March 2024.. Regional groups exist in all sea basins across Europe to implement the Common Fisheries Policy's regionalised approach to fisheries management by taking into account regional differences and specific challenges.
The Commission calls on Member States in the different sea basins to further accelerate the use of the regionalisation process to effectively apply fisheries management measures in marine Natura 2000 sites and by 2030 in all MPAs.
To ensure a level playing field across Europe, the Commission calls on Member States to define, together with stakeholders, by March 2024, the areas to be covered by the prohibition for at least 20% of each Member State's marine waters.
Finally, continued efforts to protect and restore the seabed outside MPAs are needed to secure compliance with the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MFSD) and meet the objectives of the proposed Nature Restoration Law. To this end, Member States should swiftly agree on and implement the threshold values for seabed integrity, which are currently being developed under the MSFD. The threshold values define the extent to which the seabed can be lost or adversely affected by human activities for it to be in good environmental status.
Why focus on prohibiting bottom fishing in MPAs?
Healthy seabed habitats are a key part of healthy marine ecosystems. Their rich biodiversity provides nursery and spawning grounds for many species and contributes to maintaining the structure and functioning of marine food webs, as well as to regulating the climate. Ocean sediments are also major natural carbon sinks, and there is growing recognition of the importance of storing and maintaining blue carbon in marine habitats for tackling climate change. Fishing using certain mobile bottom-contact gear (mobile bottom fishing) is among the most widespread and damaging activities to the seabed and its associated habitats.
MPAs are geographically distinct areas dedicated to conservation of marine ecosystems. They are a globally recognised tool for safeguarding biodiversity and maintaining marine ecosystem health and the supply of ecosystem services. Today, MPAs cover only 12% of EU seas, however they are not all effectively managed and less than 1% are strictly protected.
According the scientific advice provided to the Commission in 2021 by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES), mobile bottom fishing and in particular bottom trawling is among the most extensive human marine activities disturbing the seafloor across Europe. Nonetheless, mobile bottom fishing still remains widespread in EU waters, including in many Natura 2000 sites and other MPAs. This undermines the achievement of EU and global conservation targets.
Considering the special need for protection and restoration of MPAs, which are the most biodiversity-rich areas, the Commission calls on Member States to gradually phase out bottom fishing in all existing and new MPAs, by 2030. Urgent protection and restoration of seabed habitats in MPAs is necessary considering their importance as hotspots of EU marine biodiversity and carbon sinks, as well as long-standing legal obligations for their effective management under the Birds and Habitats Directives.
How will the action plan affect fishers and the fisheries sector?
Fishing activities depend on a healthy marine environment with healthy fish stocks and rich biodiversity. This action plan is therefore a blueprint for securing prosperous future for fisheries communities in the medium and long term. Measures that will be taken to improve conservation and protection of marine species and habitats, in particular in MPAs and spawning and nursery areas for commercial species, will directly benefit fisheries through rebuilding fish stocks.
However, in the short term, these actions touch the daily lives of fishers and communities that depend on these fishing practices. It is therefore important to ensure that the transition is gradual and that Member States take due account of the specific needs of local communities and support them in a targeted way. Short-term socio-economic impacts of this transition to more sustainable fisheries will have to be compensated to ensure that the process is just and fair.
The Commission calls on Member States to better use EU funds, as well as national and private funding, to assist the most affected communities and help them to strengthen their resilience, to innovate and adapt. This includes making better use of the support available through EU funding instruments, in particular support for innovation and diversification of economic activities, support for the energy transition and increasing gear selectivity.
The funds to be used for that purpose are primarily the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF) and the LIFE programme. They have a central role in supporting the policy objectives for climate and biodiversity. Other sources of funding include Horizon Europe, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) (including Interreg programmes), the European Social Fund+ (ESF+), the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), the Connecting Europe Facility and the Recovery and Resilience Facility.
Member States should use these EU instruments strategically, increase national funding and encourage investments from the private sector to channel support for the transition, for example, by embracing smart specialisation strategies for a sustainable blue economy. The Commission will continue to guide and support Member States fully in this regard. Targeted training and upskilling programmes run with EU support under the Erasmus+, EMFAF or ESF+ funds could also help build bridges with other blue economy sectors, such as algae production and regenerative sea farming, renewable energy and sustainable aquaculture.
How will the Commission ensure this action plan is implemented?
The Commission calls on Member States to implement the necessary actions in close cooperation with all stakeholders, with a view to implementing the EU environmental and fisheries policies in full coherence. The final aim of the action plan is to ensure a thriving sustainable fisheries sector able to co-exist and benefit from healthy and biodiverse marine ecosystems.
By the end of March 2024, and in parallel to adopting national measures or submitting joint recommendations to the regional groups to prohibit mobile bottom fishing in the MPAs that are Natura 2000 sites that protect the seabed and marine species, Member States are expected to prepare and publish roadmaps describing the measures they intend to take to implement the action plan.
In 2023, next to swiftly providing templates to Member States for the preparation of their roadmaps, the Commission will establish a group gathering representatives from all Member States, with stakeholders as observers, to support the implementation of the action plan and monitor its progress. The aim will be to facilitate knowledge sharing and discussions between fisheries and environmental communities, as well as to give the Member States a platform for dialogue on the implementation of their roadmaps. The first meeting of this group will be called in autumn 2023.
The Commission will regularly inform the European Parliament, the Council, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on the implementation of this action plan.
Member States should also make better use of the support available through EU funding instruments, in particular support for innovation and diversification of economic activities, and for increasing gear selectivity.
In the first half of 2024, the Commission will assess the progress in the implementation of this action plan in the context of the second Technical Measures Regulation implementation report and the Biodiversity Strategy mid- term review, and consider whether further action or legislation is needed to improve the implementation of the action plan.
For more information
Press release on Fisheries, aquaculture and marine ecosystems: transition to clean energy and ecosystem protection for more sustainability and resilience
EU Action Plan: Protecting and restoring marine ecosystems for sustainable and resilient fisheries
Nature and biodiversity actions