Extending Natura 2000 to the Seas

Date: 2011
Le réseau européen Natura 2000  en quête d'une extension marine
Article Index
Percentage of Total Areas Covered by Natura 2000…
France's Marine Protected Areas Before 2007 and…
Protected areas of the Plateau du Four

Box 1

The European Union (EU) has adopted a flagship policy, Natura 2000, to implement the Convention on Biological Diversity, a community-wide commitment made at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Natura 2000 currently covers 18% of Europe, protecting 26,000 areas that constitute the largest network of natural sites on any continent (see Fig. 1). Based on the EU's 1979 Birds Directive (EU 2009a) and 1992 Habitats Directive (EU 1992), Natura 2000 aims to ensure the survival of Europe's most representative and threatened species and habitats, on both land and sea. This network rests on two principles. The first is scientific: site selection is based on objective criteria for habitat preservation and/or species protection. The second principle is subsidiarity, i.e. devolving decisions to the lowest practical level. This means that the EU sets common goals and objectives, but each member state decides how it will achieve them. It took nearly fifteen years for landowners, politicians, businesspeople, and other parties to accept Natura 2000 as a vital public policy, preserving habitats and species on land. The current challenges lies in motivating people to do the same for seas, given the lack of scientific and technical knowledge about the marine environment, and resistance from fishermen, industrialists and other affected parties.

The system's true power comes from an assessment that takes place every six years, and the EU's reminders and censures as member states gradually transfer new sites into the protection of Natura 2000's network, a process that structures European land and marine spaces. However, the network's extension to ocean areas has been slow enough that their protection has lagged significantly. Objectives set by the Birds and Habitats Directives have only barely been met since 1997, when the EU issued a strong reminder, and Natura 2000's key indicators for transferred areas show striking differences between countries (see Fig. 2). The slow participation rate can be explained in part by the fact that Natura 2000's twin founding principles work well on land, but confront major challenges when applied to marine areas. In this paper, we will review the major issues and differences affecting protection of marine versus inland areas, and look toward future solutions.

Marine Perimetres Must Be Defined Despite a Lack of Knowledge

On land, animal and bird species and their habitats have a long research history; Natura 2000 has drawn on this to select and delineate sites for preservation. But when the policy first took effect, farmers and other interested parties overwhelmingly rejected it: they felt excluded from initial site selections made by entirely by experts. However, successive phases of regional and local species inventories have refined the process, with local actors sharing in decision-making. Habitat definitions remain in the realm of specialists, but their basis in scientific criteria and precise species lists allows for verification and discussion, and promotes their acceptance by rural residents, governments and businesses.

On sea, the gaps in scientific knowledge create a very different situation. Lack of precise data means that habitat and species selection cannot occur with the finesse now achieved inland. Choices depend upon the "best scientific knowledge available" and are validated by the relevant scientific community. On land, areas protected under the Habitats Directive are defined precisely, for example using plant association characteristics or highly explicit forest profiles. However, all the marine areas in question lack proper species inventories and habitat profiles;, simply defining them, let alone selecting them, therefore becomes more difficult. For these areas, member states must use imprecise habitat definitions such as "reefs" or "bays and shallow creeks." Marine experts turn to other criteria, such as the presence within a network of all types of sub-habitats, e.g. reefs covered by algae, coral reefs, beach reefs, underwater zostera or posidonia (seagrass) beds, etc. They also consider the functional value of certain parts of habitats or specific criteria, such as the presence in bays of aquatic plants that signify fish nurseries.

The European Commission (EC) has acknowledged the gaps in marine habitat knowledge; in practice, it allowed a "marine exception" on this account until 2006, and has launched vast marine research programmes, largely financed by the EU.

Some member states, notably Ireland, Spain and Italy, have yet to transfer a sufficient number of marine sites into the Natura 2000 network. Furthermore, most other states have transferred only coastal areas in territorial waters. There is still not enough scientific data to determine whether the current network will ensure sufficient habitat for threatened species' survival, and the EC has agreed to conduct complementary research before designating more sites. This contrasts with the programme's application on land, where any habitat insufficiency is litigated. The lack of knowledge not only impedes objective marine site selection, but threatens acceptance by critical stakeholders and decision-makers - commercial and recreational fishermen, other recreational users, energy and resource extraction industries, local and regional governments. These interested parties had little time to learn about marine site-selection criteria and process before they faced very large transfers to Natura 2000 - up to 70% of German territorial waters and 40% of French (Fig. 3). It is understandable that these stakeholders wonder about the legitimacy of site selections, especially when the choices may affect their livelihoods and remain unsupported by recent maps or species inventories.

Public education and explanations alone will not suffice for extending Natura 2000 to marine areas, since important habitats and species may seem trivial or useless in the eyes of certain stakeholders. This increases the need for further marine inventories, defining the issues and stakes - even if perimetres are subsequently modified - so that decisions reflect precise data and therefore become less open to criticism. European and national research programs and the scientific community all strive to provide state-of-marine-areas studies; this will take years, however, and meanwhile stakeholders and decision-makers wait impatiently to learn what effect the measures and system will have on their practices.

Once the Natura 2000 network is fully in place, the European Commission will probably pay closer attention to member states' efforts to conserve habitat and species and to evaluate projects that affect these resources. How should states fulfill their commitments, while giving appropriate weight to economic, social and cultural activities in selected sites?

In France, for example, those with economic interests in a designated site - inland or marine - can participate in a steering committee and help write an objectives document. In response to local elected officials, the French government has prioritized a local process for land sites; this decentralizes responsibilities so that towns or regions can draft the objectives document if they choose. For marine sites, the philosophy remains the same, but with one noteworthy difference: the French government and state retain authority over marine areas and relevant objectives documents, since marine areas are in the public domain and not subject to property rights. The state and the steering committee choose a consulting representative body (e.g. an organization of fishermen or group of other technical experts) to outline suitable objectives and actions for habitat and species preservation, on a case-by-case basis. In some instances, as with the Plateau du Four (see Box 1), the "consultant" is a group of fishermen, while in others it may be the town's or region's officials, especially if many economic stakes - fishing, leisure, industrial, touristic - depend on coastal management. In cases of conflict, the French government delegates responsibility for objectives to the French Marine Protected Areas Agency, a neutral public organization.


Natura 2000's experience on land has taught us that that marine area stakeholders and decision-makers must mobilize and participate in the process. This mobilization takes place in a context of major local, national and European reforms, influenced by increased awareness about environmental issues and changes in uses of marine spaces, e.g. sharing fishing areas with marine energy projects or extractive industries. The rapidly-changing socioeconomic landscape must leave room for biodiversity preservation and restoration. While this imperative has provoked stormy debates between Natura 2000 policy-makers, industry and representatives of user groups, some projects have already explored means to accommodate the latter without sacrificing the aims of the former (see e.g. Box 1).

Gradual changes to fishing, tourism, extractive industries and other activities will visibly affect the marine environment only in the middle- or long-term, but they have already shown fruit in the 2008 European Marine Strategy Directive and the recent Common Fisheries Policy reforms (see e.g. EU 2009). The Marine Strategy Directive forecasts reaching a "good environmental status" for ocean waters in 2020 (EU 2008) and the Common Fisheries reform should ensure an ecosystem-based approach to marine resource management.

Protected Areas of the Plateau du Four

The Plateau du Four exemplifies the difficulties encountered in transferring marine areas. The site traces a square around the plateau's reef, several thousand nautical miles from the coast. Professional and recreational fishermen as well as divers frequent the ecologically rich site. The maritime prefecture delegated the drafting of objectives to the regional fishing committee. The committee acts as the technical representative body, taking the opportunity to lead the process rather than be subject to it. But its true challenge is to remain neutral vis-à-vis other interested parties, recreational fishermen in particular, since the goal is to take care of habitats and species rather than the interests of the fishing industry. The French Marine Protected Areas Agency has launched an area inventory that aims to deliver real-time data to the technical representatives (the fishing committee). The local government inventories the area's human activities and organizes local participation, so that fishermen can participate in the inventory alongside amateur divers. This permits a shared diagnosis of the site's status that, in a later phase, will inform decisions about appropriate measures.


Source: Based on data from the European Topic Center on Biological Diversity (2010)
Show Media

Percentage of Total Areas Covered by Natura 2000 as of May 2010

Source: European Topic Center on Biological Diversity (2010)
Show Media

France's Marine Protected Areas Before 2007 and After 2010

Source: Agence des Aires Marines Protégées (2010)
Show Media

Protected areas of the Plateau du Four

Source: Agence des Aires Marines Protégées (2010)
Show Media