Download12 Regional Summaries

Region II – Greater North Sea

The human population density around much of the North Sea is high, with greatest pressure from humans in eastern and southern parts of the Region. More than 500 people per km2 live in some coastal areas and intensive farming covers up to 70% of the land that drains into this part of the ocean. Overall fishing effort is decreasing (down 25% from 2000 to 2006), but around 30 different commercial fish stocks are still exploited.

Extensive mudflats and estuaries line the coasts of the southern North Sea. The Wadden Sea is the largest area of intertidal mudflats in the world, hosting 10 to 12 million migrating birds every year. In the north-west of the Region, there are large kelp forests in rocky areas and globally important island seabird colonies.

The North Sea has some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and maritime transport continues to increase. Construction activities have also been increasing this decade, with more coastal structures and wind farms being built and operated, and more tourist traffic. This is why it is a crucial area for a coherent approach to planning and protecting the marine environment.

The QSR 2000 identified as issues of high importance in Region II: impacts of fisheries; hazardous substances, especially persistent organic pollutants; nutrient inputs from land; and a lack of knowledge on climate change.


Some fish stocks improved. Fisheries management is changing for the better, with long-term management plans for key stocks and substantial decreases in destructive practices such as beam and otter trawl fishing in some areas. The excessive discards of fish are beginning to be addressed. There are signs that fish communities near the seabed may be starting to recover.

Reduced inputs of hazardous substances and nutrients. Most OSPAR countries have met and many exceeded the OSPAR target for reducing phosphorus inputs to eutrophication problem areas, and three countries are approaching the 50% reduction target for nitrogen. Inputs of mercury and lead to the sea from several major rivers have dropped.

Good MPA coverage. Region II has greater coverage by MPAs than the other Regions, with 5.4% of the waters and seabed protected. The challenge now is to integrate management of these MPAs with wider spatial plans.

Ongoing concerns

Eutrophication on the coasts. Eutrophication caused by nutrient inputs is a problem along the east coast of the North Sea from Belgium to Norway, and in some small estuaries and bays of eastern England and north-west France. Associated problems include fish dying in the fjords of Denmark and Sweden, and sugar kelp declining along parts of the Norwegian coast. Nitrogen inputs, largely from agriculture, are the biggest cause of eutrophication and few countries approach OSPAR’s 50% reduction target for nitrogen inputs to problem areas. It can take decades before reduced nutrient inputs benefit the marine environment because nutrients can be released from soil and sediments.

Pollution with hazardous substances. Concentrations of metals (cadmium, mercury and lead) and persistent organic pollutants are above background in some offshore waters of the North Sea, and unacceptable in some coastal areas. Lead levels, for example, were unacceptable at 40% of locations monitored, while PAHs and PCBs were at unacceptable levels at more than half of the monitoring sites.

Amounts of litter are a concern. Over 90% of fulmars have microscopic plastic particles in their stomachs and 45% to 60% have more than the Ecological Quality Objective (EcoQO) set by OSPAR. Beach litter in the southern North Sea is at OSPAR-wide average (around 700 items per 100 m beach), but levels are higher in the northern North Sea.

Progress towards sustainable fishing is slow. Some important North Sea fish stocks are still outside sustainable limits and while damaging practices have been reduced, the picture is not uniformly good. The poor status of cod is of particular concern. By-catch of rays, sharks, porpoises and dolphins in fishing nets is also of concern.

Breeding failure of seabirds. In the northern North Sea, some seabirds have suffered a decade of breeding failure, possibly due to the combined effects of climate change and fishing on key prey species. Although breeding success was good for the first time in 2009, the long-term picture is still one of serious concern.

Damage to seabed habitats. Significant damage has occurred to shallow sediment habitats and reefs as a result of bottom fishing practices, especially beam trawling. In the western Channel, thick beds of red calcareous seaweed called maerl declined in extent and quality, partly as a result of damage resulting from its extraction for use as an agricultural soil conditioner.

Impacts of climate change. The pace of warming of the sea is highest in Region II, with an increase in sea surface temperature of 1 to 2 °C over the past 25 years. Plankton and fish communities are already changing in response to warming. Fish like silvery John dory, sea bass and red mullet are becoming more common further north, while North Sea cod stocks seem to be falling faster than would be expected from the impact of fishing alone.

Pressures from responses to climate change. A number of industrial activities are likely to begin or increase in Region II in response to climate change. The coasts of the southern North Sea are susceptible to sea-level rise and erosion, so large-scale development of coastal defence is likely, with an associated increase in pressure on seabed habitats from sand extraction for beach nourishment. As in the Norwegian Sea (Region I), old North Sea oil and gas fields are proposed sites for sub-seabed storage of CO2. The North Sea is an attractive site for offshore energy generation from renewable sources, owing to its proximity to large populations. The long-term effects of these large-scale projects are not clear.