Research Article: Protecting aquatic biodiversity in Europe: How much do EU environmental policies support ecosystem-based management?

Date Published: June 13, 2017

Publisher: Springer Netherlands

Author(s): Josselin Rouillard, Manuel Lago, Katrina Abhold, Lina Röschel, Terri Kafyeke, Verena Mattheiß, Helen Klimmek.


The sustainable management of aquatic ecosystems requires better coordination between policies span-ning freshwater, coastal and marine environments. Ecosystem-based management (EBM) has been promoted as a holistic and integrative approach for the safekeeping and protection of aquatic biodiversity. The paper assesses the degree to which key European environmental policies for the aquatic environment, namely the Birds and Habitats Directives, Water Framework Directive and Marine Strategy Framework Directive, individually support EBM and can work synergistically to implement EBM. This assessment is based on a review of legal texts, EU guidance and implementation documents. The paper concludes that EBM can be made operational by implementing these key environmental directives. Opportunities for improving the integration of EU environmental policies are highlighted.

Partial Text

Biodiversity is declining worldwide, and at a much faster rate in aquatic than in most terrestrial systems (Vaughn 2010). Political action at regional and global levels has sought to curb such trends. In Europe, the implementation of the Birds and Habitat Directives (“the Nature Directives”), the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) aim to protect aquatic biodiversity and environments. More recently, the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy aims to implement the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 and the Aichi Targets (CBD-UNEP 2010, 2013).

Building on the overview of how individually the Nature Directives, WFD and MSFD support EBM, the discussion aims to answer the following question: how much can they work together to support each EBM principle? This analysis also provides insights into key synergies, mismatches and conflicts between the four directives. Table 2 provides an overview of strengths and weaknesses.Table 2Strength and weaknesses in the coordination of the Nature Directives, WFD and MSFD in relation to key EBM principlesEBM principleStrengthsWeaknesses/challenges1: EBM considers ecological integrity, biodiversity, resilience and ecosystem servicesReviewed policies support the key concepts of EBM implicitly, with undisputed linkages in their objectives with biodiversity conservationNo clear policy framework for taking into account ecosystem services and managing trade-offs, which reduces the potential effectiveness of the policy instruments towards biodiversity protection. The WG MAES framework could be applied to streamline approaches among the Directives2: EBM is carried out at appropriate spatial scalesManagement is encouraged at relevant ecological scales, while multiple levels in social systems (and the need to coordination) are acknowledgedNo clear framework or guidance on how to work across scales; no clear acknowledgment of cross water realms linkages (except in MSFD); objectives set a specific scales (e.g. water body level in WFD) may not take into account of ecological dynamics3: EBM develops and uses multi-disciplinary knowledgeReviewed directives encourage inter-disciplinary approaches and consideration of societal values and interest in decision makingNo explicit requirement to integrate local knowledge (e.g. to improve contextual understanding of management units)Differences in objectives, scope and approaches result in different monitoring needs. Synergies in monitoring programmes can be exploited. The main objective should be to integrate monitoring as far as possible4: EBM builds on social–ecological interactions, stakeholder participation and transparencyParticipation is an element of all reviewed directives and mechanisms are crafted to enable a balance between ecological and social concernsUnclear distribution of powers and role of local communities in decision making (e.g. who decides?)Multiple types of criteria for derogations among directives which increase potential for different interpretation and conflicts5: EBM supports policy coordinationPolicy coordination is strongly encouragedScope for revisions of the legal acts to foster further policy integration in line with Biodiversity Strategy objectivesScope for funding instruments to support integration of Programme of MeasuresFew specific mechanisms that help strong coordination are proposed, especially outside protected areas6: EBM incorporates adaptive managementPolicies support evaluation of management measures, with clear (although separate) planning cycles for HD&BD, WFD and MSFDNo strong framework for dealing with uncertainties (and climate change), no legislative guidance with regards to timescale envisaged, limited length of regulatory requirements (e.g. WFD revisions in 2020s) and no clear methodological proposition (e.g. use of scenarios)

Overall, there is a lot of EU policy support for the implementation of EBM and potential to increase synergies between policies with this purpose. The EU policy framework in the form of the Nature Directives, WFD and MSFD supports several key dimensions of EBM (e.g. ecological integrity, acknowledgement of multiple scales, multi-disciplinary knowledge, stakeholder participation, transparency, policy coordination, adaptive management). These commonalities represent opportunities for streamlining and coordinating between directives. Future research could investigate if the opportunities highlighted above are effectively exploited by implementing authorities and how. The policy review presented in this paper also highlights gaps in the four directives regarding several important dimensions of EBM, in particular with regards to: the implementation of the ecosystem services approach, the integration of planning processes and monitoring programmes, the integration of local knowledge in the decision-making process, coherent approaches to exemptions and derogations and the consideration of uncertainties in management and governance. Future work by EU policy-makers could focus on how to complement the current policy framework through more specific guidance or legislation on these dimensions. Further research could also investigate if implementing authorities have developed strategies to fill in or overcome these gaps. Thanks to a clear set of management principles, EBM is a useful concept to assess the implementation logic of European environmental policies and how they can work to protect aquatic biodiversity. Nevertheless, we hypothesise that, while EU environmental policies provide a sound legislative basis for implementing EBM, as demonstrated in this research, further streamlining and coordination across the wider spectrum of European policies would be needed to enable EBM in practice. Future research could thus expand the scope of the analysis presented in this paper and examine if the broader European policy framework, including economic and sectoral policies, supports EBM or not.