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The North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy

The North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy (The OSPAR Strategy; OSPAR Agreement 2010-03) was established in 2010 following the publication of the OSPAR QSR 2010. This Strategy updated the previous Strategies and is guiding OSPAR’s work towards 2020. Incorporating the Ecosystem Approach (the integrated management of human activities based on the best available scientific knowledge about the ecosystem and its dynamics), OSPAR is identifying and taking action on the influences which are critical to the health of marine ecosystems across the OSPAR Regions. These actions are taken with the aim of achieving sustainable use of ecosystem goods and services, as well as maintaining ecosystem integrity.

Strategic Objectives

Within the OSPAR Strategy, clear objectives are set for five strategic areas, the so-called Thematic Strategies (Box 1) [OSPAR Agreement 2010-03]. These objectives are underpinned by actions to ensure their delivery within a given timeframe. The implementation of each Thematic Strategy is described, often in terms of monitoring and assessment programmes, as well as the setting of targets and management activities.

OSPAR's Vision is of a clean, healthy and biologically diverse North-East Atlantic Ocean, used sustainably

Guiding Principles

The implementation of The OSPAR Strategy is guided by six principles:

  • The precautionary principle;
  • The polluter pays principle;
  • The application of best available techniques (BAT) and best environmental practice (BEP), including, where appropriate, clean technology;
  • The principle of sustainable development through the application of the Ecosystem Approach;
  • The principle that preventative action should be taken; and
  • The principle that environmental damage should, as a priority, be rectified at source.

The reporting of progress with respect to delivery of  The OSPAR Strategy is based on environmental assessments undertaken by OSPAR, mainly through the various OSPAR Committees. These assessments link human activities, their pressures, the state of the marine environment and management responses, with the inclusion of the relevant physics, chemistry and / or biology.

OSPAR does not operate in isolation, but works to develop relations with other international organisations / international bodies. In working with the bodies implementing the Barcelona, Bucharest and Helsinki Conventions, OSPAR is aiming to develop indicators that have a cross-over with those being developed by the other Regional Seas Conventions. Additionally, OSPAR’s collaborative work includes support to coordinate the revision of EU Member States’ initial assessments under the MSFD, the reporting of which is due in 2018. Ultimately, collaboration and cooperation is at the heart of much of what OSPAR undertakes, be it the Joint Assessment and Monitoring Programme (JAMP) or some other process introduced to protect the North-East Atlantic. An example of this is OSPAR drawing upon the work of and cooperating with relevant international organisations, agencies and industries in the assessment of radioactive substances.

Box 1: The OSPAR Thematic Strategies

OSPAR’s structure and work is based around five Thematic Strategies and a cross-cutting Joint Assessment and Monitoring Programme (JAMP).  The various strategies and objectives are outlined in the North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy (The OSPAR Strategy).  The implementation of the Thematic  Strategies is taking place within the framework of the obligations and commitments of the OSPAR Contracting Parties.  Since its inception, OSPAR has regularly reviewed the achievements that result from the implementation of OSPAR decisions.  Some of the achievements to date are highlighted for each of the Thematic Strategies.

Contributing to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive


Figure 3: The melding of the assessments for the OSPAR Thematic Strategies, in support of the North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy, with the MSFD Descriptor assessments

This should lead to the delivery of both a clean, healthy and biologically diverse North-East Atlantic and the MSFD requirement to achieve Good Environmental Status.

On 17 June 2008, Directive 2008/56/EC (The Marine Strategy Framework Directive) of the European Parliament and of the Council was introduced. This established a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy. With a vision of dynamic oceans and seas that are clean, healthy and productive, there is considerable synergy between The OSPAR Strategy and the MSFD (Figure 3). The development and implementation of the OSPAR Thematic Strategies is aimed at the protection and conservation of the marine environment and its ecosystems, with the approach including protected areas. The MSFD addresses human activities that have the potential to impact on the marine environment (excluding military uses). The application of the Ecosystem Approach to the management of human activities, while enabling the sustainable use of marine goods and services, is fundamental to The OSPAR Strategy and this Directive (2008/56/EC). The transboundary nature of the marine environment strengthens the need for cooperation between States bordering a specific sea area. Regional cooperation is a requirement of the MSFD and OSPAR plays a crucial role as a regional cooperation structure in providing the necessary foundation for such processes.


The MSFD describes 11 qualitative descriptors for determining Good Environmental Status (GES) (Figure 4). Taking these descriptors, together with relevant characteristics, pressures and impacts and considering available data and knowledge, EU Member States are required to develop assessment tools to measure progress towards achieving GES. The OSPAR Thematic Strategies (Box 1) detail objectives and there is a synergy between the processes of OSPAR and the MSFD (Table 2). The IA 2017 is designed in such a way that EU Member States can, if they choose, use some or all of its content as part of the public consultation in 2017/2018 on their national assessment reports and ultimately for reporting under the MSFD in 2018.

Figure 4: The 11 qualitative descriptors for determining good environmental status as presented in Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and the Council

A Common Science Base for OSPAR’s Thematic Strategies and the descriptors of Good Environmental Status under the MSFD

The OSPAR Strategy and the marine strategies developed by EU Member States for implementing the MSFD are dual processes on a single track. Key to this is that there is considerable overlap between OSPAR and MSFD objectives (Table 2). That said, OSPAR has a different geographic area of responsibility (Figure 1) to the EU, and thus what is covered by the MSFD (Figure 5). Geographically, although assessments are made where there is the appropriate evidence, there are waters covered by OSPAR, but not the MSFD (primarily in the Wider Atlantic and Arctic Waters) and sea areas to which the MSFD applies, but which are covered by other Regional Seas Conventions (e.g. the Baltic Sea is covered by HELCOM; Figure 5).

Assessing progress under The OSPAR Strategy goes beyond the reporting required for the MSFD, both thematically as well as geographically. As an example of a thematic difference, the remit of OSPAR includes the management of radionuclides. Within the MSFD radionuclides are simply classified as a pressure under ‘Chemicals and Other Pollutants’. There is also a difference in the legal status of the MSFD and The OSPAR Strategy. The MSFD and its principle of sustainable development is underpinned by EU law. The OSPAR Strategy has been agreed by Ministers from the Contracting Parties, but is not enshrined in law. These fundamental differences between OSPAR and the MSFD must not be overlooked. However, it is accepted that there is overlap between the two in terms of the science being used to develop and report on the status of the common seas areas and the impacts of specific human activities (Table 2 and see Tables 5–7, Section 5).

The OSPAR Coordinated Environmental Monitoring Programme (CEMP) has been a cornerstone of OSPAR’s assessments covering hazardous substances and eutrophication for many years. Ecological Quality Objectives (EcoQOs) were developed as a tool for assessing biological parameters in the North Sea over the period 1997–2010. However, with the advent of the MSFD, the need to refine assessment processes and develop a wider range of indicators has become a priority. The revised OSPAR JAMP and associated CEMP are central to this.

Figure 5 Notes

Note 1: The area shaded in purple and white indicates an area to which both the United Kingdom and the Government of the Kingdom of Denmark together with the Government of the Faroes have transmitted overlapping submissions to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) in fulfilment of their respective rights and obligations under Article 76 and Annex II to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in order to determine entitlement of outer continental shelf areas. This map should not be used in any way to prejudice the determination of that question by the CLCS in due course.

Note 2: The area shaded in black and white shows the delineation of the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 M from the territorial sea baselines of France, Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom in respect of the area of the Celtic Sea and the Bay of Biscay, as provided by the four countries to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) and included in its recommendations issued on 24 March 2009. The map of the continental shelf’s extent shall be used without prejudice to the agreements that will be concluded in due course between these Member States on their marine borders in this area.

Table 2: OSPAR’s Thematic Strategies and linkages with the eleven qualitative descriptors of Good Environmental Status (GES) under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (Extracted from The OSPAR Strategy, Appendix 2)
Qualitative Descriptors (D) for Determining Good Environmental Status (GES) under the MSFD OSPAR Thematic Strategies
Biodiversity and Ecosystems Hazardous Substances Eutrophication Radioactive Substances Offshore Industry
D1 Biological diversity Y Y Y Y Y
D2 Non-indigenous species Y
D3 Commercially exploited fish and shellfish Y
D4 Marine food webs Y Y
D5 Human-induced eutrophication Y Y
D6 Sea-floor integrity Y Y
D7 Permanent alteration of hydrographical conditions Y
D8 Concentration of contaminants [in the environment] Y Y Y Y
D9 Contaminants in fish and other seafood for human consumption Y
D10 Properties and quantities of marine litter Y Y
D11 Introduction of energy, including underwater noise Y Y

Figure 5 Representation of the marine regions and sub-regions of MSFD Article 4

Within the North-East Atlantic Ocean region, the four sub-regions listed in MSFD Article 4(2) are shown, without addressing the remaining parts of the region (e.g. waters in the Iceland Sea, Norwegian Sea and Barents Sea). Extracted from: European Commission 15th Meeting of the Committee Under Article 25 of Directive 2008/56/EC (Marine Strategy Committee); Document CTTEE_15-2016-03

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