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4. The MSFD and the ecosystem approach

The MSFDviii  is the environmental pillar of the EU’s Integrated Maritime Policy. Its overall aim is to promote sustainable use of the seas and conserve marine ecosystems. The main objective of the MSFD is to put in place measures to reach or maintain Good Environmental Status (GES) in Europe’s seas by 2020, using the ecosystem approach. The MSFD lists 11 descriptors to guide evaluation of GES (Box 5). GES is not necessarily a pristine state; it allows for the sustainable use of marine resources.

Box 5: Marine Strategy Framework Directive descriptors

  • Descriptor 1: Biological diversity (species and habitats maintained)
  • Descriptor 2: Non-indigenous species (levels are minimised)
  • Descriptor 3: Population of commercial fish/shellfish (within safe biological limits - healthy stocks)
  • Descriptor 4: Elements of marine food webs (all elements at normal abundance and diversity)
  • Descriptor 5: Eutrophication (excessive nutrient input from human activities is minimised)
  • Descriptor 6: Sea floor integrity (species, habitats and structures and functions are not adversely affected)
  • Descriptor 7: Alteration of hydrographical conditions (changes in physical conditions of waters does not affect marine ecosystems)
  • Descriptor 8: Contaminants (levels do not give rise to pollution effects)
  • Descriptor 9: Contaminants in fish and seafood for human consumption (levels do not exceed standards)
  • Descriptor 10: Marine litter (quantities do not cause harm to the environment)
  • Descriptor 11: Introduction of energy, including underwater noise (levels do not affect the environment)

Further detail on descriptors should be included in reports produced by EU countries on the determination of Good Environmental Status (see Step 1)

The MSFD requires EU countries to develop marine strategies following a specific timeline (see diagram below). The process follows a logical sequence of target-setting, identification of measures, monitoring and ongoing evaluation and adaptation.

Process and timemline for implementation of the MSFD

Process and timemline for implementation of the MSFD

In order to achieve GES in a coherent and strategic manner, the MSFD establishes four marine regions, which are themselves divided into sub-regions (see map below). Each EU country is required to produce a marine strategy for the waters under its jurisdiction, in cooperation with other countries that share the same sub-region. The Regional Seas Conventions will support this coordination.

MSFD sub-regions (draft as on 18 July 2012) supplied by EC DIKE

Figure 3: MSFD sub-regions (draft as on 18 July 2012) Note: For the north-east Atlantic region, outer boundaries are indicated for the sub-regions listed in the MSFD, without addressing the remaining parts of the overall marine region (e.g. waters in the Iceland Sea, Norwegian Sea and Barents Sea).

Existing policies, agreements and legislation address many of the human activities in the marine environment that will influence the achievement of GES (see Box 6). The MSFD requires these to integrate environmental concerns. Other policies also include requirements for implementing the ecosystem approach.


  1. viii.   Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy

Fishing net

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