Working Towards Regional Marine Conservation in the North-East Atlantic

The coastal States of a region share a common ocean space. Together they need to manage human activities and limit human impact on the marine ecosystems in a precautionary way. As a consequence, conserving the marine environment requires a large amount of multi-lateral negotiation, diplomacy and consensus building. The international community of stakeholders in the North-East Atlantic cooperates in regional conventions, agreements and the European framework. All of these are supported by scientific advice, in order to implement an ecosystem approach to the management of human activities in the North-East Atlantic.

There are many different players involved in working towards marine conservation in the North-East Atlantic (compare Factsheet). Regionally, the most important are the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR Convention, since 1992) and the conservation legislation agreed on by the European Union member states for the full range of their national jurisdiction. In recent years, the North East Atlantic Fisheries Convention (NEAFC) has also aimed for the conservation of the wider environment as part of their ecosystem approach to management.


The OSPAR Convention facilitates the regional action of its 16 Contracting Parties. These include the governments of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Finland, as well as the European Commission itself. OSPAR's mission is to prevent and eliminate pollution, and to take the necessary measures to protect the maritime area against the adverse effects of human activities. Additional goals include safeguarding human health, conservation of marine ecosystems, and, when practicable, restoration of marine areas which have been adversely affected.

The work of the OSPAR Commission is guided by an ecosystem approach to an integrated management of human activities in the marine environment. This is supported by a general obligation of Contracting Parties to apply the Precautionary Principle (PP), the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP), the Best Available Techniques (BAT) and Best Environmental Practice (BEP) that includes the use of clean technology.

Fig. 1: The OSPAR network of MPAs in the North-East Atlantic. Status at the end of 2010. Source: BfN
The OSPAR Convention currently operates through a series of five Annexes and thematic strategies addressing the main threats to biodiversity and ecosystems from eutrophication, hazardous substances, offshore industry, and radioactive substances. The impacts of climate change are addressed as a crosscutting issue (OSPAR strategies for protection of marine environment of NE-Atlantic). Whereas OSPAR has the competence to establish marine protected areas in the region within and beyond national jurisdiction, it cannot regulate fisheries or maritime transport. It can only raise any problems with the respective competent management bodies. Within national jurisdiction, EU member states have to address the European Commission on fisheries questions. Beyond national jurisdiction, OSPAR has to communicate with NEAFC, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and/or other multilateral organisations.

In 2010, OSPAR (OSPAR Ministerial Meeting 2010) set up a North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy to guide their work towards 2020. Within the 433,000 km2 covered by OSPAR marine protected areas in 2010, 285,000 km2 are in areas beyond the national 200 nautical mile zones. By 2012, OSPAR aims to have accomplished the designation of an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas, and by 2016 to have them effectively managed (see Factsheet).


Figure 1. The OSPAR network of MPAs in the North-East Atlantic. Status at the end of 2010. Source: BfN
 (click image to enlarge)

European Union

Fig. 2 illustrates that at this time, the designation of Natura 2000 sites in offshore waters is very patchy and insufficient.The overarching goal of the EU nature conservation policy is to halt the loss of species, habitats and biological communities caused by human activities interfering with the natural environment.
All Contracting Parties to OSPAR except Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland are also members of the European Union. They are committed to implement the EU Maritime Policy (EC document, Maritime affairs) (2007) and spatial planning, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008) with its aim to establish "good environmental status" in all regional seas by 2020. The conservation directives for the protection of wild birds (1979), and natural habitats and wild fauna and flora (1992), as well as related guidelines are instrumental in creating the ecologically coherent Natura 2000 network of protected areas.

Fishing at or near the seafloor is one of the most destructive human activities for benthic habitats anywhere in the sea. It is particularly harmful for deepwater species and their habitats which are easily destroyed by any kind of physical impact while they recover slowly, if at all.


Figure 2. Designation of Natura 2000 sites in 2009 in European waters. Source: EEA (click image to enlarge)


To protect cold-water coral reefs, and other sensitive habitats, the EU (by means of the Common Fisheries Policy) and the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) have closed several, sometimes large, areas to fishing with bottom-touching gear in European waters and in the high seas (see Fig. 3).

Figure 3. North-East Atlantic - National, EU and NEAFC closures to bottom fishing to protect deepwater ecosystems.

Figure 3. North-East Atlantic - National, EU and NEAFC closures to bottom fishing to protect deepwater ecosystems. (click image to enlarge)


NEAFC (North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission)

The 1982 Convention on the Future Multilateral Cooperation in North-East Atlantic Fisheries, implemented through the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) regulates all fisheries except for tuna and salmon in the North-East Atlantic high seas. It currently has five Contracting Parties (Denmark with respect to the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and the Russian Federation) as well as the EU representing its Member States.

The current NEAFC Convention aims at the long-term conservation and optimum utilisation of the fisheries resources, while safeguarding their marine ecosystems. Accordingly, NEAFC has adopted a series of conservation measures for the protection of cold-water coral habitats and 'vulnerable marine ecosystems', covering a total of 330,000 km2 on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and around 20,000 km2 on the Hatton and Rockall Banks. Also see NEAFC closures map and coordiantes as well as the article about the development of NEAFC's protection of Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs).


Role of Scientific Advice, Research and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)

The International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) ( advises all three regional organisations described above (OSPAR, EU, NEAFC,) on issues related to the impacts of fishing activities, ecosystem conservation, and the ecosystem approach to the management of human activities. Large science projects increasingly investigate human impacts on marine ecosystems and scientists get involved in the process of nature conservation. Examples are Mar-Eco ( and ECOMAR that are featured in the audiovisual material on this website. NGOs like WWF (,, BirdLife ( and Oceana ( actively use and promote the science-policy link to urge governments and regional organisations implement the best possible measures. These organisations have been crucial in developing the OSPAR biodiversity conservation framework, including the MPA network, and the regional protection of deepwater ecosystems from the impacts of bottom fishing.


< back