Europe's seas remain largely unprotected

Seabirds, like this Fulmar at Bempton Cliffs, East Yorkshire, would be well served by Britain fulfilling its EU conservation obligations. Photo: Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com).
Seabirds, like this Fulmar at Bempton Cliffs, East Yorkshire, would be well served by Britain fulfilling its EU conservation obligations. Photo: Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com).
Most European countries have still not declared a comprehensive network of Marine Protected Areas, as they are obliged to under the EU's Birds Directive.

BirdLife Europe has brought the situation to public attention this failure which puts most European seabird species at risk and delays urgently needed protection of our marine environment. BirdLife Europe calls upon the European Commission to stop tolerating this unacceptable situation and to start infringement processes in all countries that are breaking the directive and thus EU law.

EU Member States have the legal obligation to protect their marine areas as part of the Natura 2000 Network under the Birds and Habitats Directives. This applies to their coastal waters up to 200 nm (nautical miles) from land. The directive, which requires Member States to designate a network of Special Protection Areas (SPAs), has been in force since 1979. In recognition of a widespread lack of progress, the European Commission extended an informal deadline for completion of SPA networks to 2012 in the EU’s 2020 Biodiversity Strategy. This deadline has now expired, but after more than 33 years a comprehensive network is yet to be designated.

Iván Ramírez, BirdLife European Marine Coordinator said: "The situation is extremely worrying. Two major deadlines have passed and only Germany can claim it has identified both coastal and offshore sites, and is already working on site protection and management. We have major gaps, particularly in Europe’s main maritime nations, such as Portugal, Spain, Italy, Ireland and the UK, which are all at the bottom of the league."

For many years, Birdlife Europe and its national partners have gathered scientific data that have led to the identification of Important Bird Areas (IBAs) across the continent. The IBA inventory has been repeatedly recognised by the European Court of Justice as the scientific reference for the designation of SPAs. Despite all this evidence, just 2 per cent of European seas are protected as marine SPAs.

“We have now the scientific data in most of Europe to establish a solid system of marine protected areas for birds, yet lack of political will is hindering real action towards the conservation of our oceans and seabirds”, said Johanna Karhu, EU Marine and Fisheries Policy Officer at Birdlife Europe.

The EU also has international commitments to live up to, such as the CBD (UN Convention on Biological Diversity) target to protect, by 2020, at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas that are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas.

BirdLife Europe is particularly concerned that even countries that have received EU funding, specifically to complete their protected area networks, are not delivering. Typical examples are Portugal and Spain, both with large marine territorial waters and an incredible seabird biodiversity. Both countries finalised their inventories of marine IBAs as a basis for SPA designation back in 2008 thanks to EU LIFE funds, and yet they still have not declared these areas as marine SPAs.

Marine Natura 2000 designation is running far behind the designation on land where most IBAs have now been protected as SPAs. This has followed almost two decades of legal cases of the Commission against Member States, mostly triggered by complaints tabled by Birdlife national partner organisations.