The livelihoods of many EU citizens depend on the sea and its resources – fish of course, but also energy from offshore oil and gas fields. The EU's merchant fleet depends on the world's oceans for trade. Coastal areas are magnets for tourists - another big industry.
With so much at stake we must be responsible in our use of the seas' resources, preventing over-fishing and ensuring that oil and gas extraction does not harm the marine or coastal environment.
The EU fishing industry is the fourth largest in the world, providing some 6.4 million tonnes of fish each year. Fishing and fish processing provide jobs for more than 350,000 people.
The priority for the EU is to ensure fishing is sustainable both economically and ecologically, as well as taking consumers' interests into account.
To this end, the Commission has recently tabled a major reform of the EU's common fisheries policy, aiming to secure fishermen's livelihood while putting an end to overfishing and the depletion of stocks.
The proposals call for the creation of a European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) to cover 2014-20. This fund will help fishermen transition towards sustainable fishing and help coastal communities diversify their economies, by financing projects that create new jobs and improve the quality of life in these areas.
Helping to preserve fish stocks for the future – a major objective for the EU's fisheries policy.
The EU has fisheries partnership agreements with non-EU countries and negotiates within regional and international fisheries organisations to ensure that waters everywhere are regulated in a transparent, sustainable way and are not over-fished.
These agreements also give EU fishermen access to fish in distant waters, and so help to keep the EU market supplied – in return for a financial contribution whereby non-EU countries, including developing countries, can invest in their fisheries industries and in building up their fish stocks.
There is a growing gap between the amount of seafood eaten in the EU and the volumes provided by the fishing industry. Part of this gap can be made up by aquaculture. Today, a quarter of fish and seafood produced in the EU already comes from fish farms and other forms of aquaculture. In terms of volume, mussels, rainbow trout and Atlantic salmon are the most important EU aquaculture species followed by oysters, sea bream, common carp, clam and sea bass.
European aquaculture has high standards of environmental, animal health and consumer protection. However, as an industry, it has been in the doldrums in recent years – something the Commission plans to reverse with specific proposals in its reform of the common fisheries policy.
Offshore energy contributes to clean energy as well as jobs and economic growth
The EU has the world’s largest maritime area (1200 ports) and the world's largest merchant fleet. 90% of foreign trade and 40% of internal trade is seaborne.
The EU's fisheries policy has always taken environmental aspects into account. Recently, though, maritime policy has taken an even broader approach, looking at all uses of our maritime space. The goal is to build on Europe's assets and tradition in the field of marine research, technology and innovation, and contribute to the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
The EU's maritime policy encompasses maritime transport, competitive maritime businesses, employment, scientific research, fisheries and the protection of the marine environment. The goal is to ensure economic development while safeguarding environmental sustainability.
To highlight the importance of the seas as an essential component of our society and economy, the EU celebrates "European Maritime Day" each year on 20 May.
Published in March 2013
This publication is part of the 'European Union explained' series