Protection and Conservation of
Biodiversity and Ecosystems

Did it work?

Progress on protecting some species and habitats

Work by OSPAR to raise awareness with key fisheries management authorities has contributed to the protection of cold-water coral reefs.

Box 10.3 Protection of cold-water corals and other deep-sea habitats

Cold-water corals are very important in the deep-sea environment because the habitats they create are biologically rich and diverse. They may either form reefs of hard stony corals (Lophelia pertusa) or gardens of soft, non-reef building species. Cold-water coral reefs are widely recognised as threatened marine ecosystems because they are slow-growing habitats that are easily impacted by the mechanical effects of fishing gear. Lophelia pertusa has been documented in commercial by-catch in waters off Ireland, Iceland and northern Norway. Survey images reveal the extent of reef impacts including trawl door furrows and broken coral strewn on the seabed.

In 2003, OSPAR Ministers agreed to take immediate measures to protect cold-water coral reefs from further damage by fishing gear. OSPAR raised its concerns about the status of these reefs to the fisheries management authorities of the EU, Iceland and Norway and to the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC). OSPAR raised particular concerns with NEAFC over the protection of corals on the western slopes of the Rockall Bank.

There has been significant progress in establishing closed areas to fisheries around known reefs, with almost 600 000 km2 of the OSPAR area currently protected (see map). Protected areas within Icelandic (A), Norwegian (B), Spanish (C) and Swedish (D) waters have been included in the OSPAR MPA network and some fisheries closures have been introduced in Faroese waters. Certain reefs have been jointly designated by EU Member States under the Habitats Directive and the OSPAR network, including four areas in Irish waters (E) and the Darwin Mounds (F) in UK waters. Initial restrictions on fishing gear in these areas were introduced through provisions under the EU Common Fisheries Policy. This approach has also been used to protect reefs around the Azores (Portugal) (G) and on North-West Rockall Bank (UK) (H). The need to protect deep-sea habitats is one of the issues for cooperation under a memorandum of understanding between OSPAR and NEAFC established in 2008. One of the most significant conservation measures in the OSPAR area is the NEAFC temporary closure of an area comprising 330 000 km2 to bottom trawling for the purpose of protecting vulnerable deep-sea habitats. This includes closure of three areas to the west and south of the Rockall Bank (I), parts of the Hatton Bank (J), three large areas on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (K,L,M) and two isolated seamounts (N,O). The map below includes known distributions of four threatened deep-sea habitats on the OSPAR List based on the OSPAR habitat-mapping programme (Lophelia pertusa reefs, carbonate mounds, deep-sea sponge aggregations and seamounts). Knowledge of the distribution of cold-water coral reefs and other deep-sea habitats is still growing. In 2008, OSPAR recognised coral gardens, a further cold-water coral habitat, as being under threat and is now working to raise awareness of this habitat.

Following similar efforts in relation to littoral chalk communities, protection and monitoring schemes for this habitat are now included in national and EU legislation. These coastal exposures of chalk are rare in Europe and large parts have been modified by coastal defence. This has led to the loss of micro-habitats on the upper shore and the removal of splash-zone communities (including unique algal communities) which have also been affected by poor water quality. As a result of the steps taken, the overall prognosis for preventing further deterioration in the current state of the habitat is good.

Many of the species and habitats on the OSPAR List are affected by poor environmental quality. Work towards improved environmental quality under all OSPAR Strategies has had a positive influence on biodiversity. For example, threatened and/or declining species and habitats as well as wider ecosystems benefit from improvements in water quality. Dogwhelk populations, which were heavily affected by the use of tributyltin (TBT) as an anti-foulant in marine paints, are no longer declining and are re-colonising some sites from which they had previously disappeared Chapter 5. Before the global ban on the use of TBT under the International Maritime Organization, some of the first international action on TBT was taken by OSPAR. The extent of further impacts of hazardous substances on sensitive marine species, including effects such as endocrine disruption, is still being revealed.

Implementing measures can be challenging

In the Azores, a number of measures have been introduced to protect the wild Azorean limpet following a dramatic collapse in the late 1980s, including closed seasons, closed areas and licensing of fishermen. The measures have not been effective in protecting the limpet population from illegal exploitation, because the extent of the coastline and its remoteness make enforcement difficult. Legal measures must be maintained for several years and supplemented by awareness raising.

In the Wadden Sea, intense exploitation of intertidal mussel beds removed almost the entire stock of blue mussels between 1988 and 1990. As a result, trilateral targets were adopted by Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, and a management plan for the blue mussel fishery was laid down in 1997. However, despite considerable efforts in mussel management and the closure of extensive parts of the Wadden Sea to mussel fisheries, the area of intertidal mussel beds is only increasing in parts of the Dutch Wadden Sea. Long-term changes in climatic conditions and increasing numbers of non-indigenous species, such as Pacific oyster, are thought to be a contributory factor to this lack of success.

Situation is critical for other species and habitats

Progress on the protection of other species and habitats has been too slow. Many diadromous fish species (those that migrate between freshwater and marine habitats at different stages of their life­cycle) have been strongly declining. Five such species have been identified by OSPAR as under threat and in decline (European sturgeon, Allis shad, houting, sea lamprey and Atlantic salmon). The decline is attributed to direct impacts, such as uncontrolled commercial and recreational fisheries, and indirect impacts, such as degradation of spawning habitat, decreased water quality, impacts from aquaculture and barriers to migration. The European sturgeon is recognised as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Box 10.4 Protecting the last population of the European sturgeon

The European sturgeon is the largest fresh­water fish in Europe and probably one of the most vulnerable species in OSPAR’s waters. Its spawning grounds have dramatically declined since the 19th century and are presently restricted to one area in the Gironde-Garonne-Dordogne basin in France (see map) with one confirmed population, but even this may no longer be viable.

Although the sturgeon breeds in rivers, some adults spend time at sea. Their marine range is entirely confined to the coastal waters of Regions II, III and IV (see map). Loss of natural breeding and feeding habitat, through damming and gravel extraction, appears to have been responsible for the historical decline in sturgeon. The largest current threat to the few individuals remaining is from accidental capture, including as by-catch, and poaching. Water abstraction and pollution also pose problems.

Since its original inclusion in the OSPAR List in 2003, a variety of measures have been introduced in an attempt to reverse its decline. The sturgeon has full legal protection throughout the OSPAR area and awareness-raising campaigns for fishermen and anglers have been undertaken by environmental and fisheries organisations. A Europe-wide action plan for the restoration of this species was drafted under the Bern Convention in 2007.

This species has also been the subject of international scientific research and monitoring programmes aimed at understanding the reasons for its decline and at restocking with wild or artificially reared fish. Some 9000 wild fish were released into Europe’s rivers in 1995. Over 100 000 reared alevins were released into the Garonne and Dordogne between 2007 and 2009. To date, there has been no evidence of an improvement in its conservation status. In 2008, a programme was started in Germany on experimental restocking of sturgeons in the rivers Oste, Stör and Elbe.

Background document for European sturgeon

Stocks of the Atlantic salmon continue to be at low historical levels in spite of management measures aimed at reducing exploitation, mainly due to poor survival at sea. Efforts continue to fully understand the reasons for this, although it has been attributed to climate change.

Some commercially exploited fish stocks, particularly cod in Regions II and III, and orange roughy and bluefin tuna in Region V have undergone a strong decline, mainly due to poor management and overfishing.

Elasmobranchs (sharks, skates and rays) are long-lived fish found in all European waters. Populations of many elasmobranch species have declined as a result of fishing pressure and in the past several species were targeted by fisheries until their numbers collapsed. An example is the common skate which, as the name implies, was historically one of the most abundant skates in the North-East Atlantic and was widely distributed in the seas off North-West Europe. It is now considered severely depleted in many areas and is no longer found in large parts of Region II (the North Sea) and Region III (Irish Sea). Several other pelagic and demersal shark, skate and ray species occurring in both deep-sea and shelf sea ecosystems are included on the OSPAR List and continuing declines in populations have been reported during the period 1998–2008. Some, such as the angel shark and the white skate, are considered severely depleted. By-catch in commercial fisheries is the main current threat affecting elasmobranchs.

The Balearic shearwater breeds in the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean and occurs in Regions II, III, IV and V during summer (particularly June to October). Several breeding colonies have disappeared over the past few decades; threats in their offshore foraging areas in the Atlantic are also likely to have a significant effect on overall populations. The Balearic shearwater is increasingly threatened through overexploitation of its main prey species and changes in their distribution, with by-catch and oil pollution incidents also thought to be significant. At sea, censuses in the Mediterranean and the OSPAR area have both shown significant and rapid declines. This species has a very high risk of extinction (one study estimated the risk at 50% within three generations) and is classified as ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN.

Other species for which priority actions are required include the black-legged kittiwake, the leatherback turtle, the ocean quahog and the flat oyster.

Box 10.5 Local sandeel availability to black-legged kittiwakes

Populations of several seabird species have declined in Region I and the northern part of Region II. More than 90% of the North Sea’s black-legged kittiwakes breed on UK coasts. Populations have declined by over 50% since 1990, coinciding with a period of significant oceanographic change and increased commercial landings of the bird’s main prey, lesser sandeels. The graph below compares breeding success of black-legged kittiwake along the east coast of Scotland between Troup Head and St. Abbs, and sandeel catch from the adjacent sea areas east of the Scottish coast (west of 1° W; south of 58° N). This apparent relationship contributed to the decision to close the sandeel fishery off the east of Scotland in 2000. It has remained closed since, apart from a small exploratory fishery.

Breeding success and adult survival for black-legged kittiwakes was also negatively correlated with winter sea temperature. This may relate to rises in sea surface temperatures in the 1980s reducing sandeel recruitment. If temperatures in the North Sea increase further, this may lead to population declines, even if the commercial sandeel fishery remains closed. OSPAR has paused work with ICES on the development of an EcoQO for local sandeel availability to black-legged kittiwakes due to the difficulties of establishing a clear linking mechanism with the catch in the sandeel fishery.

Although an improvement in breeding success was observed on the Isle of May (off the east coast of Scotland) from 2000 onwards, numbers of Arctic skuas, Arctic terns and black-legged kittiwakes in Shetland have continued to decline following poor breeding success between 2001 and 2004. It has been predicted that if sea temperatures in the North Sea increase in the future and the sandeel fishery resumes, the kittiwake population on the Isle of May and perhaps other nearby colonies would enter a ‘catastrophic decline’.

Background document for black-legged kittiwake

Sea-pen and burrowing megafauna communities occur in soft muddy sediment and are very sensitive to seabed disturbance. They are found mainly in the shelf seas and deeper coastal waters of northern Region II and Region III, but also in parts of Regions I and IV. The high natural biodiversity of this habitat makes it very productive for fishing. The protection of this habitat in the North-East Atlantic has received little attention until now, with only limited protection provided through existing MPAs.

Other habitats for which priority actions are required include intertidal mudflats, Zostera beds, Modiolus modiolus beds, natural beds of oysters (Ostrea edulis), deep-sea sponge aggregations and seamounts.

OSPAR MPA network is developing from the Arctic to the Azores

By January 2010, the MPA network comprised 159 MPAs that together covered 147 324 km2 or 1.08% of the OSPAR area Table 10.4 and Figure 10.2.

Most MPAs are located within territorial waters, covering a substantial proportion of coastal waters (~13%), while 46 are located at least partly within Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) (covering 0.52%). Only one MPA is located on an extended continental shelf, which is claimed by Portugal. No MPA has yet been established entirely in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

The MPAs included in the OSPAR network offer protection for all invertebrates considered threatened and/or declining, three of the nine bird species listed, eight of the 22 fish species, both turtle species, three of the four mammal species, and all of the habitats listed. This is expected to improve as more MPAs are designated and management plans are developed and implemented Figure 10.3.

In Regions II and III, a substantial coverage of MPAs has been achieved in nearshore waters around the UK and Ireland and along the North Sea coast of Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. These protect a diverse range of coastal ecosystems, including tidal inlets and rivers, fjords, estuaries, salt marshes, sandbanks and rocky shores. Extensive areas of intertidal mudflats are included, with the Wadden Sea the most prominent example, together with seagrass beds (Zostera sp.), maerl, flat oyster beds, or intertidal mussel beds. The sites also host a number of species under threat and/or in decline, including harbour porpoise, common skate, salmon, cod, sea lamprey, dogwhelk, ocean quahog, and a variety of seabirds such as the Balearic shearwater or black-legged kittiwake. Some MPAs are dedicated to protecting cold-water coral reefs, for example in the Skagerrak. MPAs have also been established in offshore waters, specifically protecting reefs and sandbanks (e.g. the Dogger Bank in the central North Sea).

In Region IV, one MPA is located in offshore waters. The site (known as El Cachucho) protects a unique deep-sea ecosystem in the Cantabrian Sea. It is located in the Spanish EEZ and comprises an extensive elevated bank and seamount with a system of channels and canyons, and an inner basin that separates the bank from the continental shelf. Cold-water coral reefs, carbonate mounds, deep-sea sponges, giant squid and deep-water sharks are found at this site. The remaining MPAs in Region IV are situated along the Breton and Galician coastlines including the Mer d’Iroise to the west of Brittany (France). These sites include intertidal mudflats and beds of oysters, mussels and kelp, and rare species such as the leatherback turtle, loggerhead turtle and short-snouted seahorse.

In Region V, MPAs are being used to protect the cold-water reefs on the Darwin mounds off the north-west coast of the UK, a number of carbonate mounds in offshore waters to the west of Ireland and the rich marine ecosystems around the Azores. Three hydrothermal vent fields have been included in the MPA network: Menez Gwen, Lucky Strike and Rainbow Box 10.1, as part of the recently created Azorean Marine Park. The MPAs also include sea­mounts, volcanoes, deep-sea sponge aggregations and cold-water coral reefs, especially of Lophelia pertusa. Some of the species listed by OSPAR as threatened and/or declining only occur in Region V, for example, the Azorean barnacle, Azorean limpet and the little shearwater. Other threatened and/or declining species found in these MPAs include the blue whale, loggerhead turtle and orange roughy.

In Region I, MPAs have been established along the coast of Norway, around the Svalbard archipelago and in Icelandic coastal waters. Many protect cold-water coral reef systems, which provide important feeding grounds and shelter for several fish species, including commercially valuable species such as redfish, ling, and tusk. The most common macrofauna in these reef systems are deep-sea sponges, gorgonians, soft corals, squat lobsters, hermit and other crabs, and sea urchins. Around Iceland, two isolated hydrothermal vent fields are protected by MPAs. Three MPAs around Svalbard and Bear Island (Bjørnøya) form the most extensively protected zone in the OSPAR network, covering approximately 78 000 km2. These MPAs protect a highly biologically diverse and productive ecosystem that is considered to be one of the most important seabird areas in the world.

Ecological coherence of the OSPAR network

A comprehensive assessment of the ecological coherence of the current network of MPAs is hampered by the limited information available on the distribution of many species and habitats within the OSPAR area, including in OSPAR MPAs. A preliminary spatial assessment considering the distribution of OSPAR MPAs suggests that ecological coherence has not been reached across the entire OSPAR area. Within the North Sea, Celtic Seas and the Azores and around the Svalbard archipelago the current MPA coverage provides some degree of connectivity and representativity. It is clear that further sites need to be included in the network to ensure its coherence across the OSPAR area, especially offshore and in the deep seas.

Management status of MPAs

OSPAR is collecting and evaluating information on the management systems applied in the various MPAs. So far, most OSPAR MPAs are also Natura 2000 sites and so management regulations for these sites are based on the requirements of the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive. However, an increasing number of the sites established as OSPAR MPAs are not Natura 2000 sites. For these a range of management plans, including conservation objectives and related measures, have been established following OSPAR guidelines. OSPAR has also established guidance for the involvement of stakeholders in the designation and management of MPAs, as has been done for the Swedish Koster-Väderöfjord MPA. Transnational cooperation is also taking place between Sweden and Norway in the development of the marine national parks Kosterhavet and Ytre Hvaler.

Table 10.4

Marine protected areas nominated to OSPAR...

Figure 10.2 The OSPAR network of marine protected areas...

Figure 10.3 Distribution of OSPAR marine protected areas...

Box 10.6 Koster-Väderöfjord agreement: an example of stakeholder participation in MPA management

The Koster-Väderöfjord in the Skagerrak is designated as a Natura 2000 site for reefs and sub-littoral sand banks and the northern part is proposed as a marine national park. About 30 fishing vessels operate in the area. Trawling for deep-water shrimp is the most important fishery with annual catches of about 200 tonnes. No other types of trawling are permitted. Historically, demersal fish were the main catch in the area but have suffered a decline.

In 1996, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency declared its intention to designate the area as an MPA. In response to strong concerns by fishermen regarding possible fisheries closures, the regulator agreed to a study to define the nature conservation values of the area in more detail. As a result, the area was surveyed using remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) and multi-beam scanning bathymetry. The data obtained were studied alongside results from previous sampling programmes.

The initial findings proved controversial with local fishermen. In 1999, a working group that included local fishermen, the Swedish board of fisheries and local and regional authorities was set up to manage the potentially destructive shrimp fishery. Among other measures, the group agreed to close 635 hectares to trawling and increased the minimum trawling depth from 50 to 60 m to protect shallow water habitats. Local fishermen agreed to restrict the number of days of fishing per week, as had been done historically in the area. Another initiative by fishermen was to enforce the use of sorting grids in shrimp trawls in order to reduce by-catch.

Protecting areas beyond national jurisdiction

Since 2003, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly called upon states and relevant intergovernmental organisations and bodies to address the conservation and sustainable use of vulnerable marine biological diversity and ecosystems beyond areas of national jurisdiction. With a view to extending the OSPAR MPA network to areas beyond national jurisdiction, OSPAR has been working to identify areas in the deep seas which would merit protection in the form of MPAs Figure 10.4. One area being considered, that was initially identified as being beyond national jurisdiction, is an especially complex section of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between Iceland and the Azores known as the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone. In this area the Mid-Atlantic Ridge rises to many peaks that are shallower than 1500 m and provides benthic fauna with the only hard substrate at these depths in the open North Atlantic Ocean.

The Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone opens a major deep-sea connection between the North-West and North-East Atlantic. Within the water column, cold Arctic waters and warm Atlantic waters create a permanent front that forms a major biogeographic divide. The area has several species and habitats under threat and/or in decline, including seamount communities with cold-water corals and deep-sea sponges, seamount-aggregating fish species such as orange roughy and several species of deep-water shark. The main activities in the area are fishing, on some of the seamounts, and shipping. There may be interests for deep-seabed mining. OSPAR has been working with other international bodies towards the protection of this area and significant progress has been made with the closure of the area to bottom fishing activity by the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) until 2015. Designating this part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge as an MPA would be a pioneering step towards adequate protection and good governance of High Seas areas and would provide protection for around 323 900 km2 or 5% of Region V.

OSPAR has also identified several other ecologically significant areas in the High Seas of Region V, that would merit protection as MPAs: parts of the Reykjanes Ridge, a section of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge north of the Azores, and the seamounts Altair, Antialtair, Josephine and Milne.

Although all these areas were initially identified as being beyond national jurisdiction, some are in part the subject of submissions to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf concerning the definition of the outer limits of the extended continental shelf of coastal states. There are, therefore, important jurisdictional issues that need to be addressed in considering their designation as MPAs.

Figure 10.4 Ecologically significant areas being considered by OSPAR...