The EU and the marine environment

12 May 2016 | Posted in Tony Whitbread , Marine ,
The EU and the marine environment
sprat shoal / Paul Naylor

By Dr Tony Whitbread

Chief Executive

Life beneath the waves; out of sight and out of mind. The marine environment has until quite recently been a place to play beside, to sail on, a richness of food and mineral resources to exploit and a receptacle for our waste. Superficially the sea seemed to absorb the effects of anything and everything we threw into or took from it. The occasional media focus on impacts of oil spills on wildlife captured our attention briefly. But that public interest wanes as the images and reports of yet more oiled seabirds disappeared from the front pages.

We now understand far better how our industrial scale greed, abuse and carelessness has degraded the oceans, our coastal waters and the marine ecosystems they support. Survey technologies have advanced by leaps and bounds; we know more and more about the fascinating, beautiful, wondrous nature of our seas. We also understand much better the damage we've caused and how to put things right.

EU policy and legislation has been a double-edged sword cutting through the marine environment. Previous iterations of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) included landing quotas which directly resulted in fishermen unnecessarily discarding dead fish. This illustrates a negative consequence of the CFP but also highlights the need for continuous involvement to ensure a CFP that works for the conservation of our fishing stocks.

More positively EU policy and legislation is the source of most of the national measures which now protect our marine environment. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the UK include European Marine Sites and Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). In a bid to safeguard the foraging areas for EU protected bird populations, Natural England is proposing marine extensions to coastal Special Protection Areas classified under the EU Birds Directive.

So while there is still quite a long way to go before we can be confident that the seas and marine wildlife around Sussex are properly and effectively safeguarded, the implementation of EU legislation seems to be taking us in the right direction. It is worth reflecting that persuading our Government to take actions to safeguard marine habitats and wildlife has been a long, hard battle. Environmental NGOs have had to take legal action against the UK government for failing to establish Natura 2000 sites for the Harbour Porpoise (required under the Habitats Directive) and for failing to properly assess the risks to seabed habitats from damaging fishing activities.

I’m optimistic that the specific measures undertaken as a result of EU legislation and reform of the CFP will help our marine environment. But there are some significant battles ahead. One such issue concerns the contribution of shipping to atmospheric pollution and carbon emissions. The next time you have an opportunity to look out to sea from anywhere on the Sussex coast, try to spot one of the massive container ships which move though the English Channel and, if it’s a calm, clear day, look for the yellow streak of haze - a mark of the low grade crude oil these ships burn. Eliminating this requires changes in international law; something the power of the EU should be able to advance.

Visit our EU Referendum and Sussex wildlife webpage


  • Bob Trent:

    12 May 2016 12:53:32

    You say the EU membership is “clearly a ‘political’ issue” and that you would never advise Sussex voters on how to vote.

    You state: “Our legal remit makes clear provision for the Trust to “… disseminate the results of any … research in order to raise public awareness and to influence and change public attitudes”[2] in relation to wildlife.”

    I consider your report goes beyond that remit by very clearly trying to influence which way people should vote in the EU Referendum. The Trust does very valuable work. Please don’t undermine it by thinly veiled advice on how to vote.

  • Sussex Wildlife Trust:

    13 May 2016 08:20:33

    Our blogs on the EU are well within the remit of the Sussex Wildlife Trust and well within any guidance set by the Charity Commissioners. This has been agreed after careful discussion and scrutiny by our own Trustees. Our duty is “to conserve the Sussex land and seascape, its wildlife and habitats” and this includes comment on policy matter that effect wildlife. Indeed, failure to comment on policies affecting wildlife because of political influence would itself be a political act.

    The EU referendum has extremely important wildlife implications and these must be highlighted; we would be lacking in our duty if we did not do so. There are clearly EU derived policies that have been good for wildlife, other aspects have been less good. The key question, however, is about what the future holds, whether inside or outside the EU. For those wishing to leave the EU, how will the benefits to Sussex wildlife of EU membership be replaced and enhanced? For those wishing to stay in the EU, how will the benefits to Sussex wildlife of EU membership be maintained and enhanced? We asked this in our very first EU blog and they remain questions that deserve answers rather than avoidance.

    Dr Tony Whitbread
    Sussex Wildlife Trust

  • Bob Trent:

    13 May 2016 11:50:42

    Thank you for the reply.

    As you point out, maintaining and enhancing these policies would remain an issue whether we remain in or leave the EU. I am confident that yours and other environmental organisations are well positioned to promote the policies that are beneficial for wildlife and that you would continue to do so whatever the outcome of the referendum.

  • 09 Jun 2016 16:13:53

    Many EU environmental policies have benefited Wildife and Environment in the past. Long may they continue to do so. We don’t know whether a future Out-of Europe government will continue this good work or reverse it. If environmental protection is one of your key areas when making a decision, then you will doubtless be biased in favour of staying in Europe. Many people disregard the environment being more interested in other matters eg. sovereignty, immigration, economics, regulations etc. These people have the right to make a biased choice based on their own priorities. Thank you Sussex Wildlife Trust for presenting the environmental background needed to make an informed decision.

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