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Benchmark set for better marine protection in NE Atlantic

As this week’s OSPAR conference in Ireland draws to a successful close, Gareth Cunningham explains what the latest assessment means for our ocean environment and its secure future…

June 2017

This year celebrates 25 years of the OSPAR Commission, the mechanism by which 15 national governments, together with the European Commission, cooperate to enact the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic. Established in 1992, the Convention brings together the 1972 and 1974 Oslo and Paris Conventions (from which it derives the appealing acronym ‘OSPAR’), and the work of the Commission provides the platform for all signatories to work collaboratively to improve the health of our regional Atlantic area.

The UK and Ireland have the honour of co-hosting this year’s Commission meeting, held in Cork. Speaking at the meeting, the UK’s Minister for the marine environment, Thérèse Coffey, set out how the UK will continue to play a leading role in protecting the world's oceans, how OSPAR will become our main vehicle of delivery to improve the condition and sustainability of the North East Atlantic Ocean, and the need for continued joint action to meet targets under the Convention.

The meeting also saw the launch of the OSPAR 2017 Report. A significant undertaking, the report provides the latest ‘Intermediate Assessment’ of the state of the North East Atlantic and considers changes across 47 indicators of environmental health since the last report in 2010. In addition, it covers a range of areas such as chemical pollutants, the impacts of offshore oil and gas activities, and the health of marine mammals and birds that depend upon the region and its resources.

The report cautions that there remain three key problem areas in the North East Atlantic: (1) marine litter, (2) damage to benthic (sea floor) habitats by harmful fishing practices such as bottom trawling, and (3) marine birds threatened with significant population declines due to a host of factors.

Nevertheless, it is clear that improvements have been made since 2010. For example, we have seen measurable reductions in discharges from the nuclear sector, as well as from offshore oil and gas installations. We have also seen an increase in the number of protected areas across the OSPAR region, although the report does recognise that there is still work to do to ensure robust ecological coherence and that effective management measures are implemented and enforced in these and future sites.

A range of transboundary activities affects this part of the Atlantic, making it is impossible (and also unfair and burdensome) for any one country to take bear the sole responsibility for addressing a host of environmental threats. Whilst improving the health of our seas may appear a vast, daunting and seemingly impossible challenge, this latest report demonstrates that through good multinational collaboration we can begin to reverse the damage inflicted by manmade activities on this (not indestructible) environment.

Despite the implications of EU exit for our marine environment, we are pleased and commend the fact that the UK Government continues to recognise the need to work with our neighbours to promote the sustainable use of our shared marine resources, and indeed to collectively improve the health of our seas. OSPAR is integral to this process – also complimenting the majority of requirements set out under the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive, which the UK enacts under its Marine Strategy – and we sincerely hope the UK continues to be a prominent driver of its work now and into the future.

Gareth Cunningham

Senior Policy Officer, RSPB

Follow RSPB on Twitter @Natures_Voice

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.