Strategy for the marine environment

Directive 2008/56/EC – EU action in the field of marine environmental policy (Marine Strategy Framework Directive)

It establishes a common approach and objectives for the prevention, protection and conservation of the marine environment against damaging human activities.

It requires European Union (EU) countries to develop strategies to achieve ‘good environmental status’* by 2020. The strategies, which span over 6-year cycles, need to include measures that protect the marine ecosystem and that ensure economic activities linked to the marine environment are sustainable.

It emphasises the need for EU countries to cooperate with their neighbours in the marine regions (North-East Atlantic, Baltic, Mediterranean and Black Sea), namely when devising and implementing their marine strategies. The use of existing regional governance structures, such as Regional Sea Conventions, is therefore an important element to be considered by EU countries.
It recognises the importance of spatial protection measures for the marine environment, thereby contributing to the creation of a global network of marine protected.

Key Points

EU countries, as part of their marine strategies, must assess the environmental status of their marine waters and the impact of human activities (including a socioeconomic analysis). They must establish what is ‘good environmental status’ for their marine waters and set environmental targets. They must then develop monitoring programmes and prepare programmes of measures.

EU countries’ evaluations of their waters help improve the knowledge of Europe’s marine waters. This is also supported by programmes such as Marine knowledge or Copernicus.
Europe’s seas are divided into four marine regions: the Baltic Sea, the North-East Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Countries working in the same marine regions are required to coordinate their actions.

Monitoring programmes are drawn up to measure and evaluate progress in reaching the objectives. If certain objectives are not met, EU countries must explain why and can, if necessary, apply certain exceptions.

The directive contains a set of qualitative ‘descriptors’ for EU countries to consider when devising their strategies to achieve good environmental status of their waters. These include:
maintaining biodiversity;
engaging in sustainable fishing;
safeguarding the seabed; and
keeping marine litter and contaminants in check.
The directive builds on existing EU legislation and covers specific elements of the marine environment not addressed in other policies, such as the Water Framework Directive, the Habitats and Birds Directives.


The EU’s experience in developing a sustainable approach to ocean management through the Marine Strategy Framework Directive is seen as an important contribution to the European Commission’s 2016 vision on Ocean Governance.

In 2015, the Commission reported significant progress in establishing marine protected areas in the EU’s seas, with benefits for the economy and the environment. Under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the EU has committed to ensure the conservation of 10% of its coastal and marine areas by 2020.

In 2014, the Commission reviewed the first steps in the implementation of the directive. Since then, EU countries have established their monitoring programmes, the Commission’s assessment of which is expected shortly. EU countries should have also submitted their programmes of measures to the Commission by March 2016.
Innovation in the blue economy is identified as a means by which cost-effective marine protection measures contributing to the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive can be developed.

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive serves as an environmental guideline for the Directive on Maritime Spatial Planning published in 2014.
The latter is a part of the integrated maritime policy (IMP), which aims for the implementation of an optimal ocean management and maritime governance.

Application & Background

It has applied since 15 July 2008. EU countries had to incorporate it into national law by 15 July 2010.

For more information, see:

‘Our Oceans, Seas and Coasts’ on the European Commission’s website.

good environmental status: this relates to ecologically diverse and dynamic oceans and seas that are clean, healthy and productive. The aim is to ensure that the marine environment is safeguarded for current and future generations.


Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy (Marine Strategy Framework Directive) (OJ L 164, 25.6.2008, pp. 19–40)


Commission Decision 2010/477/EU of 1 September 2010 on criteria and methodological standards on good environmental status of marine waters (OJ L 232, 2.9.2010, pp. 14–24)

Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2013 on the Common Fisheries Policy, amending Council Regulations (EC) No 1954/2003 and (EC) No 1224/2009 and repealing Council Regulations (EC) No 2371/2002 and (EC) No 639/2004 and Council Decision 2004/585/EC (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, pp. 22–61)

Successive amendments to Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013 have been incorporated in to the original document. This consolidated version is of documentary value only.

Report from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament: The first phase of implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC) — The European Commission’s assessment and guidance (COM(2014) 97 final, 20.2.2014)

Commission Communication to the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions – Innovation in the Blue Economy: realising the potential of our seas and oceans for jobs and growth (COM(2014) 254 final/2, 8.5.2014)

Directive 2014/89/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 July 2014 establishing a framework for maritime spatial planning (OJ L 257, 28.8.2014, pp. 135–145)

Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the progress in establishing marine protected areas (as required by Article 21 of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive 2008/56/EC) (COM(2015) 481 final, 1.10.2015)

Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions – International ocean governance: an agenda for the future of our oceans (JOIN(2016) 49 final, 10.11.2016)

Vulnerable marine ecosystems: protection from bottom fishing on the high seas

Regulation (EC) No 734/2008 — protecting vulnerable marine ecosystems

It sets out the rules for fishing vessels, registered in European Union (EU) countries, using bottom fishing gears* on the high seas outside areas regulated by regional fisheries management organisations or where such organisations have not adopted measures for these fisheries.

Key Points

Regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs)

In line with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, RFMOs are international organisations through which coastal states and other states fishing on the high seas cooperate in the conservation and management of fish stocks, particularly highly migratory or straddling fish stocks*, in a particular geographic area.
RFMOs have management powers to establish conservation and management measures such as catch and fishing limits, technical measures and control measures.
The EU, represented by the European Commission, plays an active role in a number of RFMOs.


The regulation applies to vessels carrying out fishing activities with bottom fishing gears:

outside an RFMO area;
in an area where an RFMO is in the stages of development and interim measures for the protection of the marine environment have been adopted.

Special fishing permits

Bottom fishing activities are only authorised when they present no risk of damaging vulnerable marine ecosystems. EU-registered vessels using bottom fishing gears in these areas must obtain a special fishing permit. Applications must include a detailed fishing plan specifying:

the area of activity;
the targeted species;
the type of gears used and the depth at which they will be used;
a map of the seabed where the fishing activities will be carried out, if the issuing authority does not have it.

Permits are issued by the country in which the vessel is registered. The responsible authorities of that country must:

assess the data relating to vulnerable marine ecosystems in the area specified in the fishing plan before issuing a permit. Where no proper scientific assessment has been carried out and made available, the use of bottom fishing gears is forbidden;
be notified of any changes to the fishing plan in order to assess whether vulnerable marine ecosystems will be threatened;
withdraw the permit of any vessel not complying with their fishing plan.

Area closures

In line with UN General Assembly Resolution 61/105 of 2006, EU countries must identify areas where vulnerable marine ecosystems occur or are likely to occur on the basis of the best scientific information available, and close these areas to fishing with bottom gears. The Commission must be informed of any closures and must then inform the other EU countries.


Observers monitor the activities of vessels granted a special fishing permit until the fishing plan is completed. During this period, observers must:

compile information on the catch;
note changes to the fishing plan;
note any encounters with vulnerable ecosystems; as well as
record the depth at which gear is used.
A report must be sent to the competent authorities in the EU country concerned within 20 days of the mission ending. A copy is sent to the Commission.

It has applied since 31 July 2008.


Bottom gears: gears used in the normal course of fishing operations in contact with the seabed, including bottom trawls, dredges, bottom-set gill nets, bottom-set longlines, pots and traps.

Straddling fish stocks: fisheries resources that migrate between the economic exclusion zones (i.e. a sea zone over which a country has special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources) and the high seas.


Council Regulation (EC) No 734/2008 of 15 July 2008 on the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems in the high seas from the adverse impacts of bottom fishing gears (OJ L 201, 30.7.2008, pp. 8–13)


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