Text: Henrik Hamrén
New action plan for nature conservation efforts
Today, 21 May, the European Natura 2000 Day is celebrated for the first time. But up to now the member states have not fulfilled their nature conservation efforts. The European Commission has adopted a new action plan to help them speed up the work. Researcher Sofia Wikström at Baltic Sea Centre urges the Commission to develop sustainable measures for fishing in protected areas.
The European Commission's new Action plan for nature, people and the economy consists of 15 actions to be carried out by 2019. The aim is to improve the overall protection of Europe's threatened species and habitats, by accelerating the member states’ implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives. An important tool for achieving that is the EU's Natura 2000 network of protected areas on land and at sea.
– One of the major shortcomings of marine protection in the Baltic Sea is that it is not obvious how, or even that we will reduce the impact of fishing on threatened species and habitats, says Sofia Wikström, marine ecologist at the Baltic Sea Centre.
She welcomes the fact that the Commission now clearly states that fisheries management, both in terms of commercial and recreational fishing, should take greater account of the requirements in the Birds and Habitats Directives.
– But what this will mean in practice remains to be seen, she says
The environmental and fisheries management are very far apart
Member states are responsible for implementing the Nature Directives and ensuring that species and habitats are protected. During next year, the Commission will present more specific guidelines regarding fishing in marine Natura 2000 areas. According to Sofia Wikström, it is crucial that the guidelines are sufficiently concrete and clearly formulated.
– If they become too vague and watered down they will be of little help to the member states, she says.
– I hope the action plan will bring clear measures and guidelines that will ensure policy coherence between the CFP, MSFD and Nature Directives when it comes to negative impacts from fishing in protected areas. Today, the environmental and fisheries management are very far apart.
The purpose of the newly created European Natura 2000 Day is to increase awareness of the protected area network, covering 18 percent of Europe's land area and just over six percent of the sea areas. Behind the initiative stands the Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Mr Karmenu Vella, who recently called Natura 2000 ”one of the European Union’s truly outstanding achievements”.
At the same time, the European Commission recognises that the goal of Natura 2000 – to ensure the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats – is far from being achieved. Especially with regard to the marine environment.
Fishing is one of the human activities that has the greatest impact
Ten specific habitats in the Baltic Sea have been identified as particularly worth protecting by the Nature Directives. Presently, none of them achieve so-called “favourable conservation status” – even though it has been 25 years since the introduction of Natura 2000.
In a Baltic Eye policy brief on marine protection, Sofia Wikström shows how important it is to tailor-make the marine protection around the activities that constitute a threat.
– Fishing is one of the human activities that has the greatest impact on species and sensitive habitats in the Baltic Sea. But in most of the protected areas fishing is not restricted, she says.
The effects of commercial and recreational fishing on marine species and habitats are not yet fully known. However, it is documented that some fishing gears and methods, especially bottom trawling, can severely harm the bottom environments, hurt bottom living animals, and swirl sediment that damages animals and plants.
Another and obvious effect on marine species is the amount of fish caught and taken out of the sea, including unintended bycatch of other species such as porpoises and seabirds.
The amount of pike and perch has decreased in several areas of the Baltic Sea
Fishing can also affect the ecosystem and habitats indirectly. New research from Stockholm University shows that if the amount of large predatory fish in an area is reduced, it can promote algal growth and other negative eutrophication effects.
– The amount of pike and perch has decreased in several areas of the Baltic Sea, partly due to high fishing pressure. It has probably had a negative effect on several important habitats in the coastal zone, says Sofia Wikström.
In order to achieve the conservation objectives in the Baltic Sea Natura 2000 areas, protection must be strengthened and made more efficient. It will in turn demand a more ecosystem-based fisheries management, according to Sofia Wikström.
– Regulating fishing in protected areas does not have to mean a total fishing ban. Restricting fishing with certain gears or during certain parts of the year, for example during spawning, comes a long way, she says.
– But to achieve this, the fisheries and nature conservation management must come closer to each other and agree on the objectives of the protected areas, and how they are to be achieved.