Quality Status of the North-East Atlantic
In the Quality Status Report 2023, the 16 contracting parties to the OSPAR Convention, including Belgium, assess the status of the Northeast Atlantic Ocean. The report confirms that climate change and ocean acidification have become drivers of major change. Biodiversity and habitats remain at risk, but a turnaround is noticed with respect to the chemical quality of the marine environment.
More than 400 scientists and policy makers from around the North-East Atlantic have worked together to produce a holistic assessment of the North-East Atlantic marine area: the OSPAR Quality Status Report 2023 (QSR). The work was carried out under the umbrella of the OSPAR Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic. It examines the current state of the marine environment and ecosystems, and the human activities benefiting from the marine environment and interacting with it.
Dr Patrick Roose, Operational Director of the Department ‘Natural Environment’ of the Institute of Natural Sciences was one of the coordinators of this titanic work. He summarizes the situation as follows: “There is an ever-more pressing need to address drivers of degradation and biodiversity loss and thereby increase the health and resilience of marine ecosystems in the North-East Atlantic. This area also includes our North Sea. Climate change and ocean acidification have now become drivers of major changes that imperil much of the North-East Atlantic’s marine biodiversity. As such, they now add to the effects of the hitherto ‘traditional’ drivers, such as overexploitation and chemical pollution.”
Biodiversity in peril
The report shows thatmany parts of the North-East Atlantic still suffer from declining biodiversity and continued habitat degradation, despite the measures that have already been taken by OSPAR Contracting Parties.The impacts of fisheries and other human activities on biodiversity and habitat quality are still deeply felt, and other forms of degradation such as noise pollution are of growing concern.
Although the status of habitats and individual species varies greatly, some general statements can be made: Benthic habitats continue to be damaged, whereas plankton, the base of the marine food web, is impacted in pelagic habitats. The state of marine food webs is of great concern. More and more fish stocks are being fished sustainably, but the overall status of marine fish remains unfavorable. Marine birds are generally still in trouble. Many marine mammals, especially northern seal populations and small toothed cetaceans, remain at risk while the status of some other marine mammals remains unknown. We also appear to know relatively little about the status of marine turtles.
Areas of improvement
Fortunately, the environmental quality has improved in some areas: The most serious hazardous substances such as PCBs, PAHs, and organochlorides remain a cause for concern (mostly because they remain in the system for a long time), but releases have decreased substantially. Pollution by radioactive substances has been prevented, and discharges by the oil and gas industry have been greatly reduced and continue to decrease. Marine litter levels remain high but are better tracked, with significant steps having been taken to reduce it.
Eutrophication, the process in which a water body becomes overly enriched with nutrients, persists but a gradual reduction of the excess nutrients has been witnessed in many parts of the North-East Atlantic. The introduction of new non-indigenous species, another traditional driver of biodiversity loss, also appears to have decreased in the marine environment. As a community, we must ensure that we continue these trends in the right direction. Furthermore, we must also be careful with optimism in the face of climate change and ocean acidification. After all, the impacts of these man-caused phenomena are now clearly measurable and put ecosystems at further risk.
The findings from the Quality Status Report 2023 will be used to help OSPAR deliver its North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy 2030, a roadmap to achieving the vision of a clean, healthy and biologically diverse North-East Atlantic Ocean, which is productive, used sustainably and resilient to climate change and ocean acidification.
Dr Roose provides some important nuances: “The general conclusions of the QSR contain no major surprises, but we must become better at developing the necessary science-based policy, and therefore at translating scientific insights into effective measures. To be effective, we need to pool our efforts and move to international evaluations and joint measures. It makes no sense to assess everything on a national basis as there are no borders in the seas, and no undesirable effects can be overcome in national parts of a bigger basin.”
There is also additional work to be done for science: “Still, there are indicators for which we have insufficient data and can better coordinate the data collection. Sufficient, continuous and coordinated data collection is key, in other words, so is continuous policy support. Also, not all assessment methods and thresholds are already sufficiently established, particularly for cumulative effects” Dr Roose adds.
About OSPAR and the QSR
OSPAR – the Oslo and Paris Commission – is the mechanism by which 15 Governments and the EU cooperate to protect the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic. The fifteen Governments are Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
OSPAR started in 1972 with the Oslo Convention against dumping and was broadened to cover land-based sources of marine pollution and the offshore industry by the Paris Convention of 1974. The two conventions were unified, updated and extended by the 1992 OSPAR Convention. A new annex on biodiversity and ecosystems was adopted in 1998 to cover non-polluting human activities that can adversely affect the sea. More information on the OSPAR website and YouTube.
The Quality Status Report (QSR) 2023 is the most authoritative assessment of the whole North-East Atlantic and reflects the collective work of the 16 Contracting Parties to the OSPAR Convention. It assesses the status of various components of the North-East Atlantic and examines how conditions have changed since the last QSR in 2010.
Publication of the QSR 2023 was announced at the Annual Science Conference of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) in Bilbao, Spain, on September 13, 2023. In Belgium, the results, with a focus on the North Sea, were presented during the event 'Nature restoration in our North Sea', organized by the FPS Public Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment, on December 5, 2023 in Bruges.
The Belgian input for the QSR came about thanks to the cooperation of many actors, all of which are explicitly thanked for their cooperation: the Directorate-General for the Environment (FPS Public Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment), the Institute of Natural Sciences, the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC), the Flanders Environment Agency (VMM), the Research Institute for Nature and Forest (INBO), the Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO), the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ), Maritime Access (Department Mobility and Public Works), the Public Waste Agency of Flanders (OVAM) and the Directorate-General Shipping (FPS Mobility and Transport).