Swimming in a sea of uncertainty

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) introduced a significant change in the scientific evidence requirements for supporting regulatory decisions by the marine regulatory and nature conservation agencies in the UK and the EU. Many of these decisions will result in a license or authorisation to undertake works in coastal, estuarine or marine areas, or to place or remove materials. Since the main objective of the Directive is to manage human activities and sustainable use of marine goods and services and to achieve ‘Good Environmental Status’ (GES) by 2020 across Europe’s marine environment, monitoring the impact of such activities is essential. The requirements for compliance monitoring are normally set in a series of license conditions, and these will result in the production of data. The data will be used as scientific evidence, and must be scientifically robust and able to stand up to legal scrutiny.

In the recent past, the monitoring requirements associated with fundamental ‘new’ EU environmental legislation such as the Habitats Directive and the Water Framework Directive (WFD) led to the use of ecosystem structure data as scientific evidence. For example, this could be through the use of biological population data, monitoring abundance and distribution of certain species, or compliance with specific numeric thresholds or standards. In contrast, the MSFD is focused on ecosystem function, and its relationship with biodiversity and ecosystem structure. 1,2

A recent review of the application of the MSFD across the EU undertaken by the EU-funded DEVOTES3 project shows that ‘the consistency of the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning (BEF) relationships has been limited by the use of different approaches, variables and scales, and there is no confident application (sic) within marine BEF-based monitoring’.

In consequence, the adoption of standard and consistent methods to meet the assessment and monitoring requirements of the MSFD should be a priority, together with an update of the methodology used in the existing regulatory framework in the UK. The lack of standard methods for the assessment of the set of ‘descriptors’ that summarise ecosystem function is an obstacle for the effective implementation of the MSFD and a consistent approach for the regulation of human activities in the marine environment. We will discuss the scientific and technical implication of this in later issues of our newsletter.

1. Borja, A., Elliot, M., Carstensen, J., Heiskanen, A.-S., van de Bund, W., 2010a. Marine management – towards an integrated implementation of the European marine strategy framework and the water framework directives. Marine Pollution Bulletin 60, 2175-2186.

2. de Jonge, V. N., Pinto, R., Turner, R.K., 2012. Integrating ecological, economic and social aspects to generate useful management information under the EU Directives’ ‘ecosystem approach’. Ocean & Coastal Management 68 (2012) 169-188.

3. Patrício J, Teixeira H, Borja A, Elliott M, Berg T, Papadopoulou N, Smith C, Luisetti T, Uusitalo L, Wilson C, Mazik K, Niquil N, Cochrane S, Andersen JH, Boyes S, Burdon D, Carugati L, Danovaro R, Hoepffner N. 2014. DEVOTES recommendations for the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. Deliverable 1.5, 71 pp. DEVOTES project. JRC92131

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