COASTS AND SEAS
Marine and coastal ecosystems host a rich diversity of life that is vital for human well-being and livelihoods. They provide food and raw materials, produce oxygen and sequester carbon, prevent erosion and floods, and offer space for people to relax, recharge their energy and connect with the natural world. Almost half of Europe’s population lives in a coastal area.
Despite its importance, our marine and coastal environment is under increasing pressure. Among the key threats are coastal development, pollution, boat traffic, overfishing, sports and leisure activities, invasive species as well as climate change.
In the EU, we are taking important measures to preserve our marine and coastal species and habitats through the implementation of the EU Nature Directives and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, legal frameworks that are transposed into national laws across Europe.
COASTAL AND MARINE HABITATS
Europe’s marine and coastal environments are remarkably varied. Along the EU’s coastlines, 39 types of coastal habitats are protected, including stony beaches, estuaries, lagoons, salt marshes, sea cliffs and 17 kinds of dunes.
Sand dunes border long stretches of the EU’s coastline. Dunes develop from sediment moved onshore by the tide to form beaches. Dunes form when sediment is far enough inland to be no longer moved by the tides; they are usually colonised and stabilised by vegetation.
Dunes are one of the coastal habitats most threatened by human development, and across the EU they are mostly in a poor state. Tourism-related activities, in particular, can result in the modification of natural coastlines and the degradation of dune habitats. Invasive species that are not native to European dunes can also damage dunes by dominating and displacing native flora and fauna.
MARINE HABITATS: SEAGRASSES, THE FORESTS OF THE SEA
Marine areas also contain a rich diversity of habitats and those protected in EU seas include sandbanks, Posidonia seagrass beds, sea caves, reefs and deep-sea habitats such as submarine structures formed by leaking gases. Most of these habitats also host rich animal communities. Posidonia beds for instance provide homes for many of them – but they are also under threat.
Our seas are home to nearly 150 protected animal species, including dolphins, whales, seals, marine turtles, seabirds and fish.
Seventy-nine seabird species are regularly found on European seas, including petrels, shearwaters, gannets, cormorants, skuas, gulls, terns and auks. Seabirds usually spend much of their life at sea and only come ashore to breed. Some species migrate over thousands of kilometres, spending only part of the year on our coasts. This is the case for the Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), for instance, whose flyway is the longest migration known, passing along the whole Atlantic coast during its Arctic-Antarctic migration.
All seabirds are protected under the Birds Directive and they include some of Europe’s most threatened species. One of these is the critically endangered Balearic Shearwater (Puffinus mauretanicus), which is facing extinction. Other species are less threatened and have increasing populations in some areas, including the Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), the Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus) and the Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii).
Thirty-four species of whales, dolphins and porpoises — collectively known as cetaceans — are found in European seas. These represent 42 percent of cetacean species known around the globe, and include the Common or Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), the common Bottle-nosed Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and the Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus). Many cetacean species are good divers. The Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus), for example, can dive to depths of more than 2,000 metres in search of its preferred food, the giant squid.
All marine mammals across the EU are strictly protected under the Habitats Directive. EU Member States must take appropriate actions to avoid negative impacts on cetacean populations. In order to comply with EU law, many countries have regulated tourism activities to prevent disturbance to cetaceans. In addition, in a joint European effort coordinated by the European Environment Agency (EEA), Member States must regularly assess and report on the status of marine mammal species. The EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive also addresses the issue of underwater noise, as well as other pressures on marine mammals.
Of the seven species of marine turtles that exist in the world, five are found in EU marine waters and they are all strictly protected by the Habitats Directive. The Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) and the Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) nest on Mediterranean beaches. A female turtle may travel 12,000 kilometres to return to the beach where she was hatched and will usually lay her own eggs on the very same beach.
A further three species of turtles are visitors to the Mediterranean Sea and the North-east Atlantic Ocean, especially around Madeira, the Canary Islands and the Azores. These are the Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), Kemp's ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) and Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles.
OTHER EU EFFORTS TO PROTECT OUR COASTS AND SEAS
Many of the efforts and successes to safeguard Europe’s marine environment are coordinated at the European level. In addition to the Habitats and Birds Directives, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive is specifically devoted to addressing the main pressures on the marine environment and aims to ensure that the condition of our seas improves.
The European Commission has also launched the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, which aims to eliminate or reduce bycatch of threatened species to a level that allows species to recover.
Marine litter has become a serious problem for many coastal and marine habitats and species. In the EU, 80-85 percent of marine litter is plastic (of which single-use plastic products account for 50 percent) and fishing-related items account for 27 percent. The EU Directive on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment introduces measures to ban single-use products made of plastic for which an alternative is available on the market, to reduce food containers and beverage cups made of plastic, and a separate collection target for plastic bottles.
The EU provides financial support for the conservation of marine biodiversity through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) and the EU LIFE programme. Many successful marine and coastal projects have been funded under these two programmes.
The Marine Information System for Europe - WISE provides access to information and data on the state of Europe's seas, on the pressures affecting them and actions that are being taken to conserve the marine environment.
EU Coastal and Marine Policy and legislation, including the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the Common Fisheries Policy and the Integrated Maritime Policy.
LIFE & and the Marine Environment is a publication showcasing some of the best LIFE-funded projects aimed at safeguarding the health of our seas and oceans.
LIFE and Coastal Habitats is a publication highlighting some of the best LIFE-funded projects that have helped to restore and manage coastal habitats in the EU.