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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

The marine environment is not an aquarium!

Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED

Political Plenary Session on "Sustainability, Science and Innovation"

Gijon, 20 May 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is my first Maritime Day event as Commissioner for the Environment and I am pleased to be here. Gijon is both a beautiful and appropriate place to be holding an event like this.

Like much of our environment, we are seeing for ourselves just what an impact our lives, our consumption and our choices are having on our planet. The story is the same for our seas – our lifestyles are having a serious impact on their ecology.

The Mediterranean Sea, for example, is under considerable pressure. Let me illustrate this with some amazing statistics: more than half of the 414 million passengers who travel by sea in Europe have travelled through or within the Mediterranean. That is nearly the equivalent of the total EU population! If the Mediterranean were a motorway, I think it would be fair to say that it would be permanently choked with traffic. More than half of all goods transported by sea within the European Union have been processed by the ports of EU Member States.

The status of the Baltic Sea is also critical; the figures about biodiversity loss in the Black Sea are alarming.

These are only a few examples. But they are illustrations of a wider and even grimmer picture of wide-scale, long-term ecological damage.

This damage is not just about us over-using our seas, it is also about us stripping the resources we still take for granted from them, systematically. Our fishing industries are impacting heavily on marine biodiversity, including that which is protected by EU nature conservation policy. Nearly 70% of the fish stocks we know about might never recover fully, even if we stopped fishing them. Only some 31% of our fish stocks are fished sustainably. It would still be shocking, even if these two figures were the other way around…

Of course it isn't just about not being able to eat fish anymore; the marine environment is panoply of life and a platform for many activities. Unfortunately it is an environment which is (I hope "was" could have been a more appropriate word) getting sicker and sicker.

The combined weight of human pressure and climate change are increasingly disrupting the fragile balance of the marine environment. And, you better than anybody understand that the solutions are not straightforward. The marine environment is not like an aquarium at home, where you can change the water, add a few decorative rocks, clean a filter and re-stock. It is an ecosystem – a complex life engine – and the scientific challenges are enormous.

But our seas and the life within them are not separated; they make up a whole. And just like them, we need an equally integrated approach, working together to manage human activities as a whole if we are to stand a chance of righting these human wrongs. The scientific community has advocated an ecosystem approach, so that the different challenges are faced in a holistic way. As a former European Research Commissioner you wouldn't expect me to disagree, would you?

So we need a way to put this approach into practice – and we have had it since 2008. It is called the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

I believe that this Directive is an essential tool in attempting to create - for the first time - a new policy that protects the whole marine environment in a coherent way, through legally binding measures targeted specifically at Member States.

It has an overarching objective; that Member States take steps to ensure the 'good environmental status' of their marine waters by 2020. Each Member State must progressively develop its own Marine Strategy, applying an ecosystem-based approach to the management of human activities. Put another way – before we do any more damage, we have to work out ways of working with ecosystems, rather than trampling all over them. They must take account of all sectors, and allow for the sustainable use of marine goods and services.

This approach is reinforced by the existing institutional and political structures in the European Seas. The Regional Seas Conventions for the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the North-East Atlantic provide us with extra ways in which we can increase the level of coordination among EU Member States. .. And with third countries.

We are really convinced that this Directive is an indispensable tool in the new Integrated Maritime Policy. And I should emphasise that this opinion is shared by the European Council and the European Parliament. Both have insisted that the Marine Strategy Framework Directive is the "environmental pillar" of the Integrated Maritime Policy.

I have spoken a lot about the environment, about ecosystems in danger…but I know a huge part of the whole scene is the maritime economy. After all, our seas are a resource and an enabler for our economies.

Let me explain how this fits into the context of the Integrated Maritime Policy. And how it is closely linked to implementation of the Marine Strategic Framework Directive.

It is clear that the Marine Directive is the core instrument for ensuring sustainable use of the marine environment. The Integrated Maritime Policy calls for an integrated approach to maritime governance, allowing for policy linkages and stakeholder involvement. In this regard, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive contains binding obligations to guarantee that stakeholders involved in maritime affairs have access to decision-making procedures and that linkages between sectors are created.

Human activity in the marine environment and coastal zones is of course essential. Even, and especially, in the current period of economic turbulence, we must never underestimate the important role which marine activities can play in contributing to the economic stability of the European Union.

We are not unrealistic. In trying to preserve biodiversity, we are not aiming to turn the entire marine environment into a protected area; but we do need to ensure that human activity is conducted sustainably. The Ecosystem Approach, expressed through the Marine Directive, defines the concept of "boundaries of sustainability." In essence, this means that, while recognising the legitimate role man has to play in using marine resources, no maritime activities should be developed without real consideration of their cumulative impact on the marine environment. In this way, the Marine Directive provides a tool that can help change the current production methods and achieve resource efficiency.

Let us look at the example of the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. The Green Paper on reform of the CFP acknowledged that environmental sustainability is a "premise" for achieving the economic and social objectives of a reformed Common Fisheries Policy. In order to attain long-term sustainability of fishing activity and at the same time a high degree of resource efficiency, we need to take this idea further, make it operational, and eventually integrate it into future fisheries policy and its implementation.

Long-term sustainability will not happen by itself. It will need the right measures. These should include the aim of a Maximum Sustainable Yield. It is not a pipedream to imagine that fisheries management systems can improve fish stock levels and at the same time guarantee a more stable catch, bigger fish, improved profit levels, and more secure employment in the longer term. This is why, from an environmental point of view, we welcome the widespread introduction of management plans of this kind. They should ensure the ecological sustainability of fisheries activities and build consequent economic and social benefits.

One thing is clear; all of this cannot and should not exist in splendid isolation. The success of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and its environmental objectives will strongly depend on current EU policies and measures, such as the Common Agricultural Policy and the Regional Funds. To summarise: the interests of the environment and fisheries are the same on the long run.

And they also depend, to a very large extent on knowledge. This may sound like a bit of a step change in a speech about fishing and maritime policy…but knowledge is the root of all goodness…in all our policies.

Knowledge is the key to innovation and policy development, and this is particularly true with regard to the marine environment. I cannot stress enough that the EU and the Member States must make every effort to fill knowledge gaps and ensure that the authorities in charge of implementing the Marine Directive have all the information they need. However, at the same time I know that monitoring is cost-intensive and the cumulative impacts of human activities are difficult to assess.

But we have thought about this. And a core strength of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive is that it allows for new approaches. Because even though we now have a lot of scientific activities and data, our knowledge of marine processes and the impacts of our life and work on the marine environment is still far from perfect. Yes, we need an integrated scientific approach. As you see, my dear science friends, I still believe in knowledge and in science!

But this lack of scientific knowledge should of course not prevent us from taking action now. It should serve as an incentive to develop policies that actively aim to protect the marine environment while making way for human sustainable activities. One way of converting unsustainable industrial processes and production into sustainable business methods is through eco-innovation. This could reduce environmental impacts by using organic products or installing re-manufacturing mechanisms. In this way we can optimise the use of resources, which should be our primary aim.

For the collection of data, there is first and foremost a need for a long-term structured partnership between marine research and marine environment policy. We saw that the successful implementation and enforcement of the Marine Directive depends on scientific backing. However, as I explained, in some areas this is inadequate or incomplete. In order to fill those data gaps, we need to reflect upon and work towards a long-term comprehensive solution. We need a research structure or a mechanism that mobilises funds and experts to tackle problems like marine litter or noise. I will continue to do my best to ensure that the best scientific knowledge is made available to marine managers.

Ladies and Gentlemen

Jacques Cousteau - a man who knew a bit about the oceans – once said "The sea, the great unifier, is man's only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat."

To me, 'being in the same boat' forces us to take a more responsible attitude. And I believe we are doing just that. But we need to work harder and build on the momentum provided by the current economic situation and the growing awareness of the deterioration of marine ecosystems. Our new approach to maritime policy must emphasise sustainability.

We need to ensure that protection of the environment is central to our efforts. We must ensure that what we do is controlled within the confines of long-term sustainability.

I thank the Spanish authorities for putting this topic high on the agenda of this event, and making it a priority for their EU Presidency. Yes we are in the same boat – but I believe it is beginning to float in the right direction.

The wind is strong. Let's pull together and raise the sustainability sails high. For a better future. Our future of course!

Thank you.

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