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Implementing the ecosystem approach through the MSFD

The MSFD’s focus is on meeting environmental objectives: it is not a mechanism for integrated management of human activities. Additional governance tools, such as marine spatial planning, are needed to make the ecosystem approach a reality in coastal and marine environments. The economic, social and environmental benefits of marine spatial planning are well documentedix. However, marine plans are not yet in place across Europe: creating the enabling conditions for integrated marine spatial planning is a top priority.

Implementation of the MSFD will require a coordinated, coherent approach within each sub-region. This will be challenging since each country is developing its own strategy. Marine spatial planning is likely to help, as it provides a means for neighbouring countries to understand and work with adjacent demands on marine space and resources.

Box 6: Other relevant environmental policies, agreements and legislative measures

  • Marine spatial planning is being advocated by the EC, and implemented to varying degrees by individual countries across Europe. It has no statutory basis at the European level, though the EC is considering this.
  • European fisheries are managed through the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which is administered centrally by the EC. The CFP is undergoing a reform that is likely to result in requirements for fishery-based multi-annual plans with an emphasis on the ecosystem approach.
  • Shipping-related issues are addressed through a number of international conventions administered by the International Maritime Organisation. MARPOL 73/78 (the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships) is the main convention covering pollution of the marine environment by ships.
  • The Water Framework Directive (WFD) overlaps with the MSFD in coastal waters. The MSFD states that coastal waters should be considered under the MSFD unless already addressed by the WFD or other EC legislation (likely to be the case for impacts of noise and litter, commercial fisheries and certain aspects of biodiversity).
  • The EU Habitats and Birds Directives require EU countries to introduce measures (including protected areas) to maintain or restore vulnerable habitats and species.
  • These Directives were developed before the ecosystem approach became a driver in European legislation, and make no allowance for human activities within sites.
  • Other important policies include the EU Bathing Waters Directive, EU Shellfish Waters Directive, EU Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive and EU Nitrates Directive.


  1. ix.   Ehler C & Douvere F (2009) Marine spatial planning: A step-by-step approach toward ecosystem-based management. Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and Man and the Biosphere Programme. IOC Manual and Guides, No. 53, IOCAM Dossier No. 6, Paris, UNESCO.

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