The EU Commission Decision on Good Environmental Status of marine waters, adopted on 17 May 2017, contains a number of criteria and methodological standards for determining good environmental status (GES), in relation to the 11 descriptors of good environmental status laid down in Annex I of the Marine Directive. It also contains specifications and standardised methods for monitoring and assessing marine waters.
The 11 descriptors of GES are:
- Biodiversity is maintained
- Non-indigenous species do not adversely alter the ecosystem
- The population of commercial fish species is healthy
- Elements of food webs ensure long-term abundance and reproduction
- Eutrophication is minimised
- The sea floor integrity ensures functioning of the ecosystem
- Permanent alteration of hydrographical conditions does not adversely affect the ecosystem
- Concentrations of contaminants give no effects
- Contaminants in seafood are below safe levels
- Marine litter does not cause harm
- Introduction of energy (including underwater noise) does not adversely affect the ecosystem
The Decision aims to establish precise objectives for the achievement of GES within the implementation of the MSFD, thereby providing a picture of the extent to which good environmental status is achieved in the EU’s seas and oceans. According to EU Commission, the new Decision provides for:
- More flexibility: Member States can focus their efforts on the main problems for their marine waters. They can for example de-select criteria that are not relevant for their seas, or apply a risk-based approach to the implementation of their marine strategies.
- Comparable and consistent outcomes across Member States: The new framework focuses on measuring the extent to which good environmental status is. This requires the setting of “threshold values”, thereby contributing to an improved and clearer way to achieving environmental objectives.
- Specific situations pertaining to each marine region or subregion: It pushes for more cooperation among Member States in a regional or subregional context, often through the work developed by Member States in Regional Sea Conventions. This not only reduces duplication, but ensures that Member States focus on what is most relevant.
- Facilitating the work of Member States: Through the use of existing obligations under other EU legislation (e.g. Water Framework Directive, Habitats Directive, Birds Directive, Common Fisheries Policy) avoids parallel processes that would otherwise create unnecessary burden.
EU Commission adds that criteria and methodological standards help make the descriptors more concrete and quantifiable. For instance, Descriptor 3 should be assessed using the following criteria and methodological standards :
- fishing mortality
- the reproductive capacity of the stock
- the population age and size distribution
- Fishing, and other human activities affecting populations of commercially exploited fish and shellfish, should not push exploitation beyond the maximum sustainable yield levels, in accordance with the Common Fisheries Policy.
- Human activities should allow the spawning stock biomass (fish that are old enough to spawn) to be above levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield, in accordance with the Common Fisheries Policy.
- Old age is generally a sign of wellbeing. Therefore fish stocks should have a large proportion of older and larger fish. As this may differ from one marine region to another, threshold levels will be determined by Member States in a regional context.
- However the outcome of the assessment on any descriptor by itself does not tell much about the state of the sea. Fish populations, as an example, also form part of a diverse ecosystem. This assessment should therefore also contribute to a more general assessment on the state of biodiversity, as required by the biodiversity and the seabed descriptors.
Concluding, EU Commission noted that a major challenge in the implementation of the Marine Directive is to attain the necessary scientific knowledge of the elements that define the state of the marine environment. Increasing scientific knowledge on the marine environment and its processes is required to adequately achieve the Directive’s goal.