Brussels (Brussels Morning) EU oceans and seas are set to receive a sustainable boost following yesterday’s presentation by the European Commission of a set of measures to revive and revitalise the bloc’s aquaculture and marine ecosystems. Dubbed the blue economy, the EU initiative is aligned with the European Green Deal, especially, the Farm to Fork Strategy, as part of overall plans to improve food systems and the environment.
“Aquaculture has a growing role to play in the European food system. The sector can offer healthy food with a climate and environmental footprint generally below that of land-based farming”, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, said.
The blue economy covers all industries and sectors related to oceans, seas and coastal areas, whether they are based in the marine environment (shipping, fisheries, energy generation) or on land (ports, shipyards, inland aquaculture and algae production, coastal tourism).
Blue economy goals
With its latest set of ambitious guidelines, the Commission pledged a 30% increase in protected marine areas by 2030, in marked contrast with today’s mere 6%. The current percentage, according to the environmental NGO Seas at Risk, is “not enough to ensure protection” for all of Europe’s threatened marine species and ecosystems.
“Marine protected areas have led to increased biodiversity and larger fish stocks, and also contribute to climate mitigation and resilience”, the Commission stated. Moreover, it added, these protected areas offer opportunities for sustainable tourism and such new activities as bio-technology.
The EU executive also expects to advance decarbonisation by ensuring maritime transport becomes more sustainable and by harnessing marine energy resource generation from today’s 12 GW up to 300 GW by 2050.
Ship recycling also features among the Commission’s objectives, including disused offshore platforms.
The Commission expects to step up organic aquaculture, with its considerable growth potential, as part of its organic farming action plan.
The Seas At Risk NGO welcomed the Commission’s new strategy, citing the need to recognise marine ecosystem services and the socio-economic costs and benefits of keeping the marine environment healthy when making economic decisions.
“Supporting innovations like cell-based seafood will help achieve a more sustainable blue economy”, Monica Verbeek, Executive Director at Seas At Risk, told Brussels Morning.
According to the Commission, the EU’s blue economy accounts for 4.5 million jobs and has a turnover of 650 billion euro. Yet, growing concerns related to ocean pollution, overfishing, including illegal fishing, and bottom trawling are threatening oceanic ecosystems.
“We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction. Marine protected areas cannot perform their crucial role to protect marine life if destructive fishing activities such as bottom trawling is allowed to continue”, Marc-Philip Buckhout, Policy Officer at Seas At Risk, said.
The environmental NGO maintains that banning bottom-trawling from marine protected areas is essential in order to fight biodiversity loss and enable the ocean to mitigate climate change, and that it would yield net socio-economic benefits.
In November 2020, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) regretted that EU action had not contributed to the recovery of sea and marine habitats and urged the EU to take appropriate remedial action.
The ECA findings singled out overfishing and the inefficiency of EU programmes in addressing core problem related to marine environment.
Seas At Risk’s Verbeek claims that the EU’s strategy is over-reliant “on Maritime Spatial Planning and existing but poorly implemented environmental legislation”, and notes that this is insufficient to ensure the transition to a sustainable blue economy.
Verbeek went on to condemn the EU’s failure to “explicitly state [in the strategy] that harmful industries like offshore oil and gas will need to be phased out”, in speaking to Brussels Morning.
The Commission’s blue transition is to be financed by the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF), approved by the Parliament’s Fisheries Committee and managed by the new European Climate, Infrastructure, and Environment Executive Agency (CINEA).
Not everyone is sanguine about this. The EMFAF has been described as a “greenlight for harmful overfishing” by MEP rapporteur Francisco Guerreiro (S&D).
“The new fund [EMFAF] is not ambitious enough in acknowledging the importance of protecting biodiversity and marine ecosystems”, Guerreiro observed, noting that the fund ignored the last International Panel on Climate Change’s reports on oceans.
The Commission is to cooperate with the European Investment Fund in order to come up with a financial framework in line with the sustainable blue economy.
Member states are also set to play an important role in improving implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy, the EU’s maritime policy and agenda for global ocean governance, which will support implementation of the EMFAF.