Overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction are threatening European Seas

Oceana points out that while World Oceans Day is celebrated on 8 June, our seas are collapsing as a result of climate change and industrial activity

Press Release Date: May 6, 2010

Location: Madrid


Marta Madina | email: mmadina@oceana.org | tel.: Marta Madina

Oceana denounces the severe deterioration of Europe’s oceans and seas and calls for immediate measures to halt the collapse of fish resources, the destruction of marine habitats and the pollution affecting its waters. On World Environment Day (5 June) and World Oceans Day (8 June), Oceana points out that European seas are among the most damaged in the world, requiring the immediate implementation of effective laws to reverse the decline.


European seas and oceans are immensely rich due to of the wide variety of habitats and species they harbour. In fact, of the 230,000 marine species catalogued around the world, more than 31,000 are found in European waters. However, this precious biodiversity has been devastated by pollution and physical damages to ecosystems in recent decades. “If, apart from this fact, we take into account that 88% of fish stocks in EU waters are overexploited, it is obvious that sustainable management plans and measures must be urgently implemented to guarantee the reasonable use of the marine environment. And, of course, mechanisms must be established that guarantee compliance with these measures,” affirms Xavier Pastor, Executive Director of Oceana in Europe.


Each day in European waters:


–          there are about 275 illegal dumps from boats

–          more than 55,000 tonnes of oily and bilge waters and fuel waste are spilled into the sea

–          more than 350,000 hectares of the sea bed is impacted by trawlers

–          20,000 tonnes of fish are taken out, while an additional 3,000 tonnes that are thrown back


Climate change

The oceans help control global warming, absorbing millions of tons of carbon dioxide, but their absorption capacity is being exceeded. Consequently, emissions into the atmosphere are increasing, along with temperatures. Increased temperature leads to melting ice caps and a rise in sea levels. As waters warm up,  more storms form and marine currents are altered, affecting continental climates.


At the same time, changes in sea temperature and chemical composition reduce biodiversity and facilitate the appearance of invasive species. The carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans makes the water more acidic, destroying ecosystems and endangering coral reefs and organisms that need calcium to build their skeletons and shells, like crustaceans. Reefs are an essential habitat for a variety of commercial species and a pantry for predators. At the same time, they play an important role in the formation of beaches and are a major tourist attraction.


Ricardo Aguilar, Director of Research at Oceana Europe, explains:  “More than 1,000 million people around the world depend for their survival on the resources coming from coral reefs, so their disappearance would seriously affect livelihoods. Furthermore, reefs harbour a quarter of all known marine species, so an increase in CO2 emissions and the consequent acidification of the oceans constitutes a serious danger for the stability and survival of these ecosystems.”   In figures

Apart from climate change, European oceans and seas face other serious problems:


1. Overfishing

Overfishing has emptied Europe’s seas, to the point that, according to the European Commission, 88% of our fish stocks are overexploited. Of these, 69% are at risk of collapse. The main causes are fleet overcapacity, the setting of excessive Total Allowable Catches (TACs) that respond more to the interests of the fishing industry than to scientific recommendations, and illegal fishing practices, including the use of illegal fishing gear such as driftnets.


Accidental catch – or bycatch – is also a serious problem and is caused partly by the use of non-selective fishing gear. Much of the bycatch is discarded – thrown back dead into the ocean – for economic and other reasons. Discards can reach 90% of the total weight of the catch in some fisheries, such as the French deep-sea trawling fleet. In total, more than 3,000 tons of fish are discarded every day. In figures

2. Destruction of habitats

Industrial trawlers are destroying seabeds with their sack-shaped nets that catch everything in their path, including threatened species, while destroying sponges and corals that are thousands of years old.


In response to this and other threats, the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) determined that, by 2012, 10% of all seas must be protected in order to halt the loss of ecological biodiversity. In the EU, only 2.7% marine areas are protected, according to estimates made by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, so measures must be urgently adopted.

The most extensive protected areas are located in Germany (the Schleswig-Holsteinisches Wattenmeer National Park, with 267 km2), in Spain (the Marine Protected Area of El Cachucho, with close to 230 km2) and in Greece (the Alonissos-Vories Sporades National Park, with 226 km2). Of these, only El Cachucho is exclusively marine.  In figures



3. Pollution

Maritime traffic generates more than 20 million tons of hydrocarbon waste in Europe. Almost 40% of EU vessels do not comply with the MARPOL convention that regulates marine pollution In fact, chronic hydrocarbon pollution caused by tank-washing, emptying ballast waters and other oily waste products constitute a danger that is three times more serious than the black tides caused by spills. Other contaminants must also be taken into account, as well as the effects of waste. In figures



Cod: all stocks are overexploited.

Bluefin Tuna: the Mediterranean fishery is on the verge of commercial collapse after years of fishing 4 times more than the recommended amounts.

Hake: currently under recovery plans that allow gear that catch juveniles (more than 20% of the total).

Swordfish: overexploited in the Mediterranean, with 50-70% of the catch comprised of juveniles.

Anchovy: fishery closed in the Cantabrian and other fishing grounds will soon be closed where fleets are catching double the recommended amount.

Plaice: overexploited in most fishing grounds; this fishery generates up to 90% discards.

Whiting: fisheries are open against scientific recommendations.

Monkfish: catches exceed scientific advice by 40%.

Grenadier: populations have declined 90% in recent years due to overfishing.

Climate change

  • The most important increases in sea levels in Europe have been recorded in Norway, Spain (Galicia) and Portugal: between 2.3 and 2.8 millimetres per year, compared to the 1.7 average.
  • In 2007, the Arctic ice sheet registered a 23% decrease in surface area compared to 2005. Iceless summers will lead to the extinction of the polar bear by the end of the century.
  • The Baltic has suffered the most important increase in water temperature in Europe in the last 25 years, with an increase of 0.06% annually, ten times more than last century’s average.



  • The Cantabrian Sea is in the worst state as far as fishing resources are concerned, with more than half of the stocks evaluated by ICES are overexploited. The closing of fisheries has been advised for 57% of the stocks in this situation.
  • The North Sea is the European sea with most discards, registering 960,000 tons of fish thrown back dead into the sea each year.
  • The Mediterranean Sea is the most dangerous sea in the world for sharks, because 42% of the species are in danger of extinction here, compared to the world average of 21%.


Destruction of habitats

  • The North Sea is the most severely affected by bottom trawling. Annually, 57 million hectares are destroyed, in other words, an area similar to the surface area of the entire seabed.
  • There are some 1,200 invasive species in European seas, 6 times more than 50 years ago. Two thirds of them have colonised the Mediterranean.


  • Of all the seas in the world, the Mediterranean is the most contaminated by hydrocarbons, with more than 400,000 tons per year; close to 15% of all the hydrocarbon waste on the planet.
  • The Baltic holds the record for phosphate and nitrate pollution, with close to 250,000 tons of nitrogen and phosphates per year, almost 600 kilos per square kilometre.
  • The Black Sea is the largest anoxic basin in the world, with close to 87% of its waters without oxygen and high levels of hydrogen sulphate.

Oceana has video footage and photographs of marine species, habitats and

fishing activity

Report: “Oceans in danger”

Oceana TV: World Oceans Day (airs 8 June)