State of play of Marine Protected Areas in the EU

Friday 23 June 2017

In the EU, the creation and management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is regulated by the Nature Directives in synergy with the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). MPAs can be a very effective tool for the conservation of biodiversity as well as for the provision of ecosystem services, but their effectiveness is undermined by a lack of management and financing. 

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) can be defined as zones where specific measures aimed at ecosystems, natural resources and biodiversity protection and conservation have been instituted. There are different kinds of MPAs with different objectives and levels of protection such as no-takes zones, marine reserves, marine parks and fully protected marine areas. Some areas are completely closed to human exploitation while some others allow different kinds of low or high intensity activities.

The need to protect global biodiversity was first addressed in 1992, with the signature of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). In 2011, the Parties to the Convention adopted a 10-year Strategic Plan to enhance the fight against global biodiversity loss and committed themselves to establish well-connected systems of protected areas to cover at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water and 10% of coastal and marine areas[1]. At the European level, the protection of vulnerable natural habitats is covered by the Habitats and the Birds Directives, known as the Nature Directives. A crucial component of these two directives is the creation of a network of special conservation areas known as Natura 2000. Moreover, in 2011, the EU adopted the Biodiversity Strategy which acknowledges the international commitments taken in the framework of the CBD and requires the full implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives, including the completion of the Natura 2000 network.

To this date, the Natura 2000 network covers over 18% of EU’s terrestrial surface and more than 6% of its marine waters. Synergies with the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) should ensure the good implementation of the Nature Directives to the EU marine environment. Indeed, the creation of marine protected areas is considered to be crucial for the achievement of good environmental status of the EU's marine waters – the main objective of the MSFD.  

Besides protecting marine biodiversity, MPAs also provide a wide range of ecosystem services and socio-economic benefits. In particular, a study[2], realised by the Institute for European Environmental Policy in 2016, assessed the many benefits MPAs generate regarding food security, climate change mitigation, nature-based tourism, coastal security and research and innovation.

The study also highlighted that some of the benefits provided by MPAs are better known and evaluated than others. For example, there is evidence of the positive impact of MPAs on fish stocks. Normally MPAs are not specifically designed to rebuild fish stocks but to protect the habitats and species listed in the Nature Directives. Nevertheless, a recent study[3], focused on the effects of MPAs on fish populations, discovered that these areas are able to positively influence fish biomass if they are adequately managed and financed.

Poor management and lack of adequate financing is indeed a problem for many EU Natura 2000 protected areas, and this finding was reiterated by last year’s Fitness Check of the Birds and Habitats Directives[4]. Particularly, the assessment revealed that many gaps still exist in the establishment of Natura 2000 areas in the marine environment and that their effectiveness has been undermined by a lack of management, a lack of funding and a lack of human resources. In the accompanying document[5] to the Action Plan, launched to improve the implementation of the Nature Directives, the European Commission urges Member States to complete the Natura 2000 network, especially concerning the marine environment, and to establish and implement conservation objectives in the framework of sound management plans.

Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries reiterated the EU commitment towards healthy oceans on the 8th of June, on the occasion of the World Ocean Day[6]. Marine protected areas were also mentioned as he announced further EU actions for the oceans.

[1] Strategic Plan for Biological Diversity 2011-2020, Target 11:

[2] Socio-Economic Benefits of the EU Marine Protected Areas, May 2016:

[3] Capacity shortfalls hinder the performance of marine protected areas globally, Nature, March 2017:

[4] FITNESS CHECK of the EU Nature Legislation (Birds and Habitats Directives):

[5] Factsheets providing details of actions in the Action Plan for nature, people and the economy, action 4:

[6] Joint Statement on the occasion of World Oceans Day:

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