MPA Perspective: International Challenges for the Establishment of MPAs in the Dutch North Sea

MPA News

Editor's note: Ton IJlstra is project leader for adoption of fisheries measures in MPAs managed within the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Conservation and Food Quality.

By Ton IJlstra

North Sea coastal states have identified marine protected areas in their offshore areas. This has been done by request of the European Commission (EC) within the context of the increasing importance of nature conservation in the European Union. Within the MPAs, conservation objectives have been established. Fishing activities (especially bottom trawling) constitute the most important threat to these objectives.

However, measures to reduce adverse effects by fishing activities are not simple. Coastal states have to comply with EU regulations and they need the agreement of the EU before adopting any fisheries measures relating to the protection of the marine environment. Gaining international agreement on protection strategies poses challenges for the Netherlands and other coastal states.

The Netherlands has designated - or is in the process of designating - seven MPAs for the purpose of implementing the European nature conservation program Natura 2000. Four sites are in the coastal zone (out to 6 nm from shore) and three sites are in the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Netherlands.

Management of sites in an international context

The main activities in the international North Sea with regard to nature conservation are extraction of oil and gas, shipping, and fishing. In the coastal areas, recreational use is important. In addition, very large marine areas will be required for wind energy farms.

EU member states may designate their own sites to be protected and may establish their own protective regimes. In doing so, they are not required to account for any MPAs or adopted regimes of neighboring states. Several MPAs designated or planned by the Netherlands border marine areas of other states. One Dutch MPA - Vlakte van de Raan - borders Belgian waters, whereas another (Cleaver Bank) borders UK waters. A Dutch MPA around the country's portion of Doggerbank borders the EEZs of Germany and the UK. (A small part of the Doggerbank is in the Danish EEZ.) In most cases, the corresponding areas on the other side of these boundary lines have not been designated as MPAs. The Doggerbank is the only exception, where Germany has already designated its part of the ecosystem as an MPA. (The UK has announced its intention to do so with its respective portion of Doggerbank, but Denmark has indicated it will not identify its portion as an MPA.) As a result, fishing and other activities in shared ecosystems will be subject to different conservation regimes. This is clearly undesirable from a management or protection point of view.

A complicating element is the role of the EU in the North Sea with regard to fisheries management. The EU decides on the development of stock management regimes for fisheries. The EU either consents (within a 12-nm zone from shore) or decides (within EEZs) on these measures. Member states of the EU may set environmental protection measures in their MPAs, but the measures apply only to fishing vessels flying their flag. They are not allowed to implement these same measures for vessels flying a foreign flag - unless the EU consents to or decides on such protection. Thus all EU fishing vessels generally have access to, and may fish inside of, MPAs designated by member states. As a result, to protect the MPAs they have designated in their own waters, the states must seek the consent of the European Commission in the coastal zone or an EC decision in the EEZ.

The Dutch response

The EC has decided that MPA site selection and the adoption of protective measures is a matter for the individual coastal states. It has issued informal procedural rules with which coastal states should comply. Among these, coastal states must:

  • Develop a protective regime;
  • Ask the EC to agree with that protective regime;
  • Consult with international users, other coastal states, regional advisory councils, and socio-economic commissions on the protective regime; and
  • Consult with all flag states whose interests may be affected by the measures.

This is a complex procedure since the Netherlands has maritime borders with three coastal states, and some 10 flag states fish in the Dutch part of the North Sea. To coordinate this procedure, the Netherlands has involved the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) in this process. ICES was invited to organize an international, science-based, and stakeholder-driven process involving all relevant user groups. This project - FIMPAS (FIsheries Measures in Protected AreaS) - involves environmental NGOs, fisheries organizations in Europe, and scientists in a process to identify fisheries management options for the Dutch MPAs in the North Sea. In a series of three workshops (2010 - 2011) ICES' Advisory Committee will advise the Dutch government on what fisheries measures should be taken to achieve the conservation targets. After the third workshop on management options (January 2011), it will become clear whether this international process will have yielded satisfactory results. (Follow FIMPAS on Twitter: @fimpas.)

Ideally, an international MPA should have one homogeneous set of conservation objectives. This is the main challenge for coastal states. Involving stakeholders successfully in the planning and management of transboundary MPAs also presents many challenging aspects, including identifying appropriate representatives of user groups.

The strategy of the Dutch government with respect to these issues is to seek international cooperation at an early stage, establish an independent science regime through ICES, and give stakeholders the opportunity to participate at different levels in the management process. The results will be known toward the end of 2011.

For more information:

Ton IJlstra, Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Conservation and Food Quality, The Hague, Netherlands. E-mail: a.h.ijlstra [at] minlnv.nl; Web: www.noordzeenatura2000.nl