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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Together we can save our seas

Opening address to ‘HOPE’ (Healthy Oceans – Productive Ecosystems) marine conference

Brussels, 3 March 2014

Distinguished Panel,


Members of the European Parliament,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here this morning, and to have the opportunity to discuss the future of Europe’s seas with you. This is in fact, the first time that so many actors in marine environment protection in the European Union are gathered together. I would like to thank the Greek Presidency for their support in bringing this to fruition.

President Barroso has just given us a mandate: to create HOPE for our oceans. HOPE, in our case, stands both for Healthy Oceans and for Productive Ecosystems. In Europe, our livelihoods and our growth‑potential largely depend on the proper functioning of marine ecosystems. So I cannot think of a better goal for our conference today and tomorrow.

To provide HOPE as we explore new opportunities to draw on our sea’s resources, we have an important responsibility to use these resources carefully and efficiently, in ways that safeguard them for future generations. To achieve this, we must recognise and address the growing pressures that we are exerting on the marine environment today.

Surveys around the North East Atlantic have found more than 700 distinct items of marine litter for every 100m stretch of beach. That is more than 700 symbols of resource inefficiency, in the distance between where we are sitting and the entrance to the Berlaymont building, next door.

Similarly, before we mine for resources thousands of metres below sea level, disturbing and at times destroying delicate ecosystems, we would do well to explore whether some of these materials could not be harvested more cheaply, from the millions of waste or disused products which still find their way into landfills across Europe each year. Remanufacturing and reusing those products is a good way to create jobs, especially local jobs which are so badly needed in Europe today.

Are we really equipped to respond to these challenges?

We are now at the midway point of implementing the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the EU’s flagship policy for marine protection. There are just six years between now and 2020, the target date we have set ourselves to reach “Good Environmental Status” for all of our marine waters.

According to the latest reports from Member States, what we see is troubling. It is clear that Europe's seas are not in good environmental status. Today, most indicators are flashing:

In the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, nearly 9 in every 10 species are still being overfished. The longer we wait to develop truly sustainable fisheries, the greater the cost will be to our industry in the long run, as well as putting at risk the livelihoods of the people who depend on fishing to put food on their table.

It is true that pollution in the marine environment has decreased in some places but levels of nutrients and certain hazardous substances, such as mercury or PCB still remain above safe levels.

Oxygen depletion, as a result of nutrient pollution, is particularly serious in the Baltic and Black Seas.

Damage to the sea‑bed, from activities like bottom trawling, is extensive, particularly in the North Sea.

It is clear that against this backdrop urgent action is required.

Firstly, if we are to achieve “Good Environmental Status” by 2020:

To protect our fisheries for the future, Member States must deliver on their commitment in the reformed Common Fisheries Policy not to fish beyond the Maximum Sustainable Yield and to bring our fish stocks back within safe biological limits.

To tackle the eutrophication of our seas, we need to adopt a more integrated approach to the way we manage the fertilisers and other nutrients that are at the heart of the problem.

To combat marine litter, we must go to the source of the problem, and ensure that the materials that today end up as litter are instead pumped back into our economy as the raw materials for our products. The waste package I plan to put forward in Spring will support this goal, and will also propose a headline target for marine litter reduction. At the same time, we can also lead by example in practical ways, and with that in mind, I hope you will join me and thousands of others, by cleaning up a beach on European Clean-Up Day on 10 May. I have seen with my own eyes in Slovenia the power that is unleashed when citizens take the future of their environment into their own hands, and I hope we can replicate this all across the EU.

Secondly, we must work better together in the EU, across Regional Sea Basins and with our neighbours:

We must cooperate more closely if we are to understand the marine environment. It has been said that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the deep sea. This is not helped by the lack of joined-up thinking in our efforts to monitor the marine environment. As Member States move into the next phase of the implementation of the Marine Directive, we must develop joint monitoring programmes and improve the comparability of the data Member States invest so much in generating. In the process, we can work towards a shared picture, an index of the state of our marine environment, that can tell us at a glance how far we are from reaching our shared aim of Good Environmental Status. We might even call it "the Index of HOPE".

We must also develop common goals. So far, EU Member States have set fragmented, and at times contradictory, ambitions for the marine environment. We need to align our aims if we are to achieve coordinated and adequate actions to address the key marine issues we are facing today: whether overfishing, eutrophication or marine litter.

In short, we must make a step‑change from our national perspective, and put regional cooperation centre stage. The good news is that by pooling our efforts we will be able to be more effective at lower cost. The European Commission, working with Member States in implementing the Marine Directive, and with the Regional Sea Conventions, stands ready to support these efforts.

With that message of cooperation in mind, I ask that we – together – make something of this conference. Let’s not just sit here and agree with each other that “something must be done”, but then tomorrow, say our farewells, head for home and slip back into "business as usual". Rather, let’s send a clear message from this HOPE conference, that we will step up our action if we are really serious about protecting our marine environment and ensuring its productivity for the generations to come.

This is why I would like to set a challenge for this conference: a call for action and ask you to adopt tomorrow a “Declaration of HOPE”. I put a draft of this Declaration before you now, which encompasses some key messages on which I am confident we can all agree:

  • that our seas and oceans are under severe and increasing pressure;

  • that we must cooperate to overcome the gaps in our knowledge;

  • that urgent action is required if we are to tackle the most pressing threats to the health of our marine environment; but

  • that we cannot act in isolation, and we therefore need to strengthen cooperation across our regional seas;

  • And, therefore, that restoring the health of our oceans requires engagement at the highest political level within the EU and internationally.

Let's jointly send a clear message: let's agree to do more to achieve Good Environmental Status for our oceans by 2020 and commit to put in place the measures necessary to do so. For healthy oceans and for productive ecosystems - for HOPE. I am convinced you will join me in this call, and I look forward to the discussions ahead.

I thank you for your attention.

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