Food, transport, recreation, biodiversity and energy are all key resources provided by the marine environment, which denote the importance of seas and oceans for everyday life and for the economy.

Europe’s seas and oceans are under pressure from human activities, resulting in the depletion of marine resources. Such depletion is not only affecting the natural environment but also our economy, and the need to conserve the marine environment is additionally important for supporting livelihoods of those depending on it. Sustainable management of the marine environment is thus essential to ensure that the resources it provides are available for the benefit of present and future generations.

The European response to this situation is the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD).

The EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive: an overview

The EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC) – MSFD, published in June 2008, establishes a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy.

With a goal to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) in Europe’s marine waters by 2020, this Directive presents a framework for EU Member States to manage human activities in the marine environment in a sustainable manner. The Directive also promotes integration of environmental considerations pertaining to the marine environment into relevant policy areas. Within this context, the MSFD is considered to be the environmental pillar of the Integrated Maritime Policy.

The Directive calls for an ‘ecosystem-based approach’ whereby management of marine activities is driven by the prime intention to protect and preserve the marine environment with a view to attain GES in marine waters by 2020. GES is defined as: ‘the environmental status of marine waters where these provide ecologically diverse and dynamic oceans and seas which are clean, healthy and productive … and the use of the marine environment is at a level that is sustainable thus safeguarding the potential for use and activities by current and future generations’. Due to the transboundary nature of marine ecosystems, Good Environmental Status needs to be attained at a regional or sub-regional level, thereby requiring coordination across countries within the same region or sub-region.

In May 2017, the EU adopted Commission Decision 2017/848/EU on criteria and methodological standards on GES of marine waters, and specifications and standardised methods for monitoring and assessment, and repealing Commission Decision 2010/477/EU. The latter Commission Decision established criteria to be used by the Member States to determine the GES of their marine waters and to guide their assessments of that status in the first implementation cycle of Directive 2008/56/EC.

Achieving GES requires Member States to follow a plan of action stipulated by the Directive as follows:

  • Preparation of an initial assessment of the environmental status of marine waters by July 2012;
  • Determination of good environmental status, and establishment of environmental targets and associated indicators by July 2012;
  • Implementation of a monitoring programme for ongoing assessment of GES and targets by July 2014;
  • Development of a programme of measures designed to achieve GES by 2015, to be made operational by 2016.

The above process should lead to the development of national Marine Strategies coordinated with neighbouring countries and consistent on a regional or sub-regional scale. National marine strategies are plans of action that must be reviewed every six years.

The EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive was transposed into Maltese legislation through the publication of the Marine Policy Framework Regulations, 2011, as amended (S.L. 549.62). The Regulations establish the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) as the Competent Authority, which co-ordinates the strategic approach and policy direction for the implementation of the Directive. In accordance with these Regulations, other bodies may be designated as the Competent Authority for different provisions and different purposes of these regulations. Within this context, OPM has entrusted the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) with the technical implementation of the Directive. In January 2012, OPM, whilst retaining its role as Competent Authority, delegated its tasks to the Ministry responsible for the Environment.