This week, the Maltese town of St-Julian’s is transforming into a ‘hotspot’ of scientific discussion on how to improve the incomplete network of Natura 2000 marine protected areas (MPAs). The European Commission, together with scientific experts and NGOs, will critically assess the efforts made by each Member State to protect Europe’s most valuable yet threatened marine species and habitats by designating areas to be protected under Natura 2000.
This meeting is long awaited. It marks the first scientific evaluation in six years of the marine Natura 2000 network, the key tool for protecting vulnerable marine life in Europe. Although the network came into place in 1992 with the adoption of the EU Habitats Directive with significant gaps still remain. Bigger efforts are required from EU countries to fill those gaps and provide due protection for endangered European species, such as bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises, grey seals, and loggerhead turtles, and threatened habitats, such as reefs, sea caves and structures made by leaking gases.
Here are the five main reasons why it is necessary – and possible – to complete the European network of marine Natura 2000 by 2020:
- Marine nature is not doing well – Science shows us that from 2007 to 2012, only 7% of marine threatened species and 9% of threatened habitats that are protected under the Natura 2000 network were in good conservation status. The vast majority are in a precarious situation across Europe. For example, 71% of marine habitats covered by the Habitats Directive are in bad status in the Atlantic, as are 66% of marine species in the Mediterranean. EU countries need to do more and scale-up efforts to protect and restore species and habitats.
- Follow science – With widely available data existing today, EU countries possess enough knowledge and scientific information to identify many of the key areas where protected habitats are found, and where threatened species gather to rest, feed or reproduce. Gaps in knowledge gap cannot be used as an excuse for delaying conservation action.
- EU as a leader – The European Union often promotes its excellence in marine conservation, as illustrated by its global role in fighting illegal fishing, or improving international marine governance, particularly the conservation of marine biodiversity in the high seas. The European Commission should also pursue the full implementation of its own legislation to protect threatened marine habitats and species with the same level of ambition.
- Mind the 2020 target – The year 2020 is considered a critical political deadline in European marine conservation, by which at least 10% of coastal and marine areas should be protected, our fisheries should be recovered and managed sustainably, and marine biodiversity loss should have been halted. Having a strong network of marine Natura 2000 MPAs is a fundamental prerequisite to achieve all of these EU targets.
- Public awareness – A recent survey of the European Parliament on ‘Europeans in 2016: Perceptions and expectations ’ reveals that 67% of EU citizens support stronger EU involvement in environmental protection, and over 50 percent see current EU action as insufficient. More specifically on our oceans, a study from 2013 explored the values, concerns and aspirations of individuals regarding the marine environment across several EU countries. It showed that people care about ocean conservation, and more than 75% of respondents from Portugal, Italy, Spain, France and Germany strongly supported the concept of MPAs more than.
With this week’s assessment, the European Commission has a unique opportunity to identify the necessary steps that must be taken for Natura 2000 to achieve its aims, and become a marine success story. To make that happen, the Commission must be uncompromising in holding EU countries to a high standard, based on the best available science about European’s threatened marine habitats and species.