Healthy fish stocks and marine waters – The Marine Strategy Framework Directive

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29 May

The Commission adopts new criteria to assess the environmental status of marine waters; preparing for the second cycle of implementation of Member States’ marine strategies.

Last week, the Commission adopted a Decision containing a new set of criteria and methodological standards to help the EU Member States to determine and assess ‘good environmental status’ of their marine waters, as required by the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) from 2008. The Decision refines and makes changes to a similar Decision from 2010. 

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) obliges the Member States to achieve “Good Environmental Status (GES)” of EU marine waters by 2020. The Directive defines broadly GES as (Article 3): “the environmental status of marine waters where these provide ecologically diverse and dynamic oceans and seas which are clean, healthy and productive within their intrinsic conditions, and the use of the marine environment is at a level that is sustainable, thus safeguarding the potential for uses and activities by current and future generations.. 1

And: “Good environmental status shall be determined at the level of the marine region or subregion as referred to in Article 4, on the basis of the qualitative descriptors in Annex I. Adaptive management on the basis of the ecosystem approach shall be applied with the aim of attaining good environmental status”. 

There are 11 such qualitative descriptors:

(1) - Biological diversity is maintained. The quality and occurrence of habitats and the distribution and abundance of species are in line with prevailing physiographic, geographic and climatic conditions.
(2) - Non-indigenous species introduced by human activities are at levels that do not adversely alter the ecosystems.
(3) Populations of all commercially exploited fish and shellfish are within safe biological limits, exhibiting a population age and size distribution that is indicative of a healthy stock.
(4) - All elements of the marine food webs, to the extent that they are known, occur at normal abundance and diversity and levels capable of ensuring the long-term abundance of the species and the retention of their full reproductive capacity.
(5) - Human-induced eutrophication is minimised, especially adverse effects thereof, such as losses in biodiversity, ecosystem degradation, harmful algae blooms and oxygen deficiency in bottom waters.
(6) - Sea-floor integrity is at a level that ensures that the structure and functions of the ecosystems are safeguarded and benthic ecosystems, in particular, are not adversely affected.
(7) - Permanent alteration of hydrographical conditions does not adversely affect marine ecosystems.
(8) - Concentrations of contaminants are at levels not giving rise to pollution effects.
(9) - Contaminants in fish and other seafood for human consumption do not exceed levels established by Community legislation or other relevant standards.
(10) - Properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment.
(11) - Introduction of energy, including underwater noise, is at levels that do not adversely affect the marine environment.

Over the years, EAA has involved itself mostly with the outline of criteria for descriptor 3, as that descriptor effectively requires fishers to avoid or let go more of the biggest fish, which are extremely valuable to recreational angling. The Commission’s Decision has these details about the descriptor (in the annex): 

Descriptor 3 

Populations of all commercially-exploited fish and shellfish are within safe biological limits, exhibiting a population age and size distribution that is indicative of a healthy stock 

The Fishing mortality rate of populations of commercially-exploited species is at or below levels which can produce the maximum sustainable yield (MSY).

The Spawning Stock Biomass of populations of commercially-exploited species are above biomass levels capable of producing maximum sustainable yield… 

The age and size distribution of individuals in the populations of commercially-exploited species is indicative of a healthy population. This shall include a high proportion of old/large individuals and limited adverse effects of exploitation on genetic diversity. Member States shall establish threshold values through regional or subregional cooperation for each population of species in accordance with scientific advice obtained pursuant to Article 26 of Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013. 

If descriptor 3 is properly implemented also less undersized fish would be caught. In that regard, the importance of this descriptor 3 could be greater than previously thought. Very recently the EU Council made it clear2  - and most likely the Parliament will do the same soon – that it is against the Commission’s proposal that max. 5% undersized fish in the commercial catches should be allowed. The Commission has suggested this in its proposal for a revised technical measures regulation (see Article 4(1a)). Thus, descriptor 3 could be used to deliver what the technical measures regulation maybe won’t deliver. However, technical measures are legal acts under the Common Fisheries Policy, while the MSFD is environmental law, which traditionally has very little say over fisheries management. Time will tell. 

For more information about GES and the new rules see here


1. Marine Strategy Framework Directive:

2. Press conference 11 May: 

Time 9:11: POLITICO journalist asks about the 5% rule. Commissioner Vella responded that regionalisation and flexibility were taken into account "giving more ownership to the decision making at the local level".

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