United NationsDepartment of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development

Holistic approach to oceans and seas in the EU to reach clean, healthy and productive seas for current and future generations – implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD)


    The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) is the first encompassing piece of European Union (EU) legislation specifically aimed at the protection of the marine environment and natural resources and creating a framework for the sustainable use of marine waters of oceans and seas around the EU. Protecting, preserving and preventing the deterioration of oceans and seas is the EU’s priority. Marine biodiversity is critical to the health of people and our planet. Marine protected areas need to be effectively managed and well resourced, supported by regulations on sustainable fisheries management, reduction of marine pollution and ocean acidification.


    The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) requires European Union's Member States to develop strategies to protect their marine environment, based on an ecosystem approach. The strategies assess the state of the marine environment; set GES goals and targets on the basis of 11 descriptors . Monitoring programmes and sets of measures to achieve the GES also were put in place as part of the strategies. These marine strategies crucially rely on regional cooperation, through relevant Regional Sea Conventions . This transformative instrument addresses all three pillars of sustainable development in view of conservation and sustainable use of oceans and seas by current and future generations.

    Contribution to SDG Implementation

    The MSFD harmonised approaches contribute to ocean-related Agenda 2030 implementation and SDG 14 (in particular in relation to 14.1, 14.2, 14.4, 14.5 and 14.C) follow-up. Additional issues were addressed by a legal instrument.The determination of GES is based on eleven descriptors which describe what the environment should look like once GES has been achieved : Descriptor 1. Biodiversity is maintained Descriptor 2. Non-indigenous species do not adversely alter the ecosystem Descriptor 3. The population of commercial fish species is healthy Descriptor 4. Elements of food webs ensure long-term abundance and reproduction Descriptor 5. Eutrophication is minimised Descriptor 6. The sea floor integrity ensures functioning of the ecosystem Descriptor 7. Permanent alteration of hydrographical conditions does not adversely affect the ecosystem Descriptor 8. Concentrations of contaminants give no effects Descriptor 9. Contaminants in seafood are below safe levels Descriptor 10. Marine litter does not cause harm Descriptor 11. Introduction of energy (including underwater noise) does not adversely affect the ecosystem

    Implementation methodologies

    The MSFD has provided a push towards a better understanding of the pressures and impacts of human activities on the sea, and their implications for marine biodiversity, their habitats, and the ecosystems they sustain. The knowledge gained from implementing this Directive was, for example, a driving force leading to the adoption of the Single Use Plastics Directive. It has led to increased cooperation among littoral Member States of the four European sea regions, as well as across marine regions. As a result non-EU Member States also aim to achieve good environmental status or its equivalent. Considerable thought was given to applying the Ecosystem Approach at a regional scale in the context of developing the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) The MSFD includes: • The initial assessment of the current environmental status of national marine waters and the environmental impact and socio-economic analysis of human activities in these waters; • The determination of what GES means for national marine waters; • The establishment of environmental targets and associated indicators to achieve GES; • The establishment of a monitoring programme for the ongoing assessment and the regular update of targets; • The development of a programme of measures designed to achieve or maintain GES; The process is cyclical, as this is an adaptive management policy, which is crucial to address the regular and emerging challenges in its implementation. The North-East Atlantic (OSPAR), Baltic (HELCOM) and Mediterranean (UNEP/MAP) have developed an Ecosystem Approach that is comparable and in line with the requirements of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). This includes the definition of Ecological Objectives, targets and indicators for monitoring. The indicators agreed within these monitoring and assessment programmes are closely linked to SDG14 targets and indicators. Available Regional Seas Monitoring and Assessment Programmes: Regional Sea : Black Sea Monitoring and Assessment Program: Black Sea Integrated Monitoring and Assessment Programme (BSIMAP) – 2017- 2022 Link to documents: http://www.blacksea-commission.org/_bsimap.asp https://www.cbd.int/doc/meetings/mar/ebsaws-2017-01/other/ebsaws-2017-0… Regional Sea : Mediterranean Monitoring and Assessment Program: Integrated Monitoring and Assessment Programme of the Mediterranean Sea and Coast and Related Assessment Criteria (IMAP) - 2017 Link to documents: http://web.unep.org/unepmap/who-we-are/ecosystem-approach https://wedocs.unep.org/rest/bitstreams/45233/retrieve Regional Sea : Baltic Sea Monitoring and Assessment Program: HELCOM Monitoring and Assessment Strategy – 2013 (with updates in 2015, 2016, 2017) Link to documents: http://helcom.fi/baltic-sea-trends/ http://helcom.fi/Documents/Action%20areas/Monitoring%20and%20assessment… Regional Sea: North-East Atlantic Monitoring and Assessment Program: OSPAR Joint Assessment & Monitoring Programme (JAMP) - 2006 Link to documents: https://www.ospar.org/work-areas/cross-cutting-issues/jamp https://qsr2010.ospar.org/media/assessments/Basic_documents/EN_03-22e_J…


    Although the MSFD adoption in 2008 with the aim to protect more effectively the marine environment across Europe preceded the adoption of the SDG 14, it was a response to the global call for a holistic approach to oceans and seas based on ecosystem approach and addressing the anthropogenic impacts and cumulative impacts to marine environment . The important achievements concern: meeting the 14.5 target on 10% of MPAs in the EU, and significant work on meeting 14.2 target which is well coordinated with regions around Europe, as well as work on 14.1 target to address both land- and sea-based sources of pollution, including plastic pollution and micro-plastics. Additional efforts are needed to meet the ambitious objective of Good Environmental Status in all of the seas around the EU and on all of the descriptors.

    Factors and Constraints

    Since May 2017, the emphasis on regional cooperation has been further strengthened through a new EU legal instrument under the MSFD, further specifying how to achieve GES . Experience from the first six years of MSFD implementation has shown that additional efforts will be needed to meet the objective of clean, healthy and productive seas, but also that relevant comprehensive frameworks have been established and may showcase how to progress further towards the ambitious objective which is well aligned with the global ambition for holistic approach to oceans and seas addressed in ocean-related Agenda 2030 and SDG 14, in particular. Some EU funding has also directly or indirectly contributed to the implementation of this policy, namely through the European Maritime Fisheries Fund, the 7th Research Framework Programme, the LIFE programme and Horizon 2020.

    Sustainability and replicability

    The sustainability is ensured by the adaptive management approach to the policy itself. However, the overall substance of the policy will influence economic policies in ensuring that environmental concerns are integrated when decision-making on specific economic activities in the marine environment, their location etc. An example is the OECM Jabuka-Pomme pit established in the Adriatic to protect the marine ecosystem and spawning grounds for the fish, which resulted in increase in the fish-stock thus ensuring healthy ecosystems for current and future generations and a possibility to use sustainably the resources of the sea.

    COVID-19 Impact

    The MSFD implementation and ocean conservation action should continue in the times of pandemic, as we look at long-term solutions for the health of our planet, as a whole. Our lives depend on a healthy planet and the health of ocean is an important element of it. According to the UNESCO – the ocean can be an ally against COVID -19, as bacteria found in the depths of the ocean are used to carry out rapid testing to detect the presence of COVID -19. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to ensure clean, healthy and productive ecosystems for current and future generations even in relation to any emerging challenges.

    Contact Name
    European Commission
    Geographical coverage

    European Union (EU) – the oceans and seas around the EU. MSFD underpins an integrated policy framework aiming to achieve clean, healthy and productive seas across marine regions .

    17 May 2017 (start date)
    31 December 2024 (date of completion)
    Contact Information

    Laia, Policy officer SDGs