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12. Conclusions, Lessons Learned, and Looking to the Future

The QSR 2023: Main finding

The OSPAR Contracting Parties have made significant advances in understanding and limiting the negative impacts of human activity on the biologically rich North-East Atlantic. Environmental quality has improved: concentrations of the most serious hazardous substances such as PCBs, PAHs, and organochlorides have decreased substantially, ionising radiation has been reduced to near zero discharges, pollution by the oil and gas industry has been reduced, marine litter is better tracked and significant steps have been taken to reduce it, and a gradual improvement in eutrophication has been witnessed in many OSPAR Regions. And while it is not directly OSPAR's remit, Contracting Parties have worked in other contexts/frameworks to reduce overexploitation of commercial fish and reduce fishing pressure through the designation of MPAs. Despite these improvements, the impacts of human activities on biodiversity are still deeply felt, and other forms of degradation such as noise pollution and inputs of contaminants like pharmaceuticals, nanoparticles or PFAS in flame retardants are of growing concern. Human pressures also weaken marine ecosystems and reduce their resilience to climate change and ocean acidification, which are now driving major changes that imperil much of the North-East Atlantic’s marine biodiversity. Indicator assessments across the major biodiversity groups (marine birds, marine mammals, fish) and ecological assessments of food webs, benthic habitats, and pelagic habitats all show declines in biodiversity, despite the progress made in identifying and addressing pressures. Cumulative pressures and climate change not only impact individual species and important functional groups of organisms, but also accelerate the spread of non-indigenous species, many of which can become invasive and further reduce biodiversity. In this context, there is an ever-more pressing need to address the drivers of degradation and biodiversity loss and thereby increase the health and resilience of the many marine ecosystems in the OSPAR Maritime Area.

Important questions answered

The OSPAR framework tracks environmental degradation, and in this latest assessment period it has begun to examine the cumulative effects of environmental pressures and how they affect human wellbeing. During the QSR 2023, data on a wider array of biodiversity components have also been used to begin to understand whether resource use is at limits deemed sustainable, both for the resource stock and for the wider ecosystem. As in previous assessments, OSPAR has assessed the status of sensitive and threatened species and habitats to evaluate how the Regions are faring with regard to protecting species of concern. By comprehensively examining how society’s needs drive activities that place pressures on marine ecosystems and by taking stock of past responses to these pressures, OSPAR can highlight what additional measures may be needed to ensure that seas are indeed used sustainably. Future assessments will build on established baselines and long-term monitoring over a wider array of indicators and will work towards integrating information in even more meaningful ways.

This QSR provides the evidence base for considering five crucial questions focused on identifying key issues, looking at what has been done and whether it worked, addressing the future, and considering each issue holistically in appraisal of our shared ocean. These questions, and the answers across all assessments, are summarised below.

What are the key issues?

Marine ecosystems do not recognise borders, and collective action based on solid science is needed for effective environmental management. Societies across the North-East Atlantic will benefit from such effective management, enabling them to rely on clean, biodiverse, and productive marine ecosystems. The QSR 2023 shows that our seas are becoming cleaner, but there is still much work to do. Negative impacts from oil and gas activities continue to decrease, pollution by ionising radiation has been dramatically reduced, and rates of non-indigenous species (NIS) introductions appear to have decreased. However, the effects of hazardous substances are cause for concern, noise pollution remains a threat, eutrophication persists, and marine litter levels remain high despite signs of improvement.

More worryingly, limited progress has been made towards achieving biologically diverse seas. Marine birds are still in trouble, and many marine mammal populations are at risk. Despite improvements in some fish populations, most are not in good status. In some areas, benthic habitats continue to be damaged, and plankton - the foundation of the marine food web - are being impacted in pelagic habitats. All this and an assessment specifically focused on marine food webs indicate that the condition of North-East Atlantic food webs is of great concern. Climate change and ocean acidification are now drivers of major change and imperil marine biodiversity even further.

Negative impacts from oil and gas activities continue to decrease © Shutterstock

Negative impacts from oil and gas activities continue to decrease © Shutterstock

Additional actions are needed to achieve OSPAR’s aims, since the collective trends point to declining biodiversity and continued habitat degradation across many parts of the OSPAR Maritime Area, despite the measures to achieve clean, biodiverse, and productive seas taken by OSPAR Contracting Parties.

Increasing cumulative pressures from land, freshwater, and ocean use are compromising the ability of some marine areas to provide ecosystem services and support human wellbeing. Fisheries is one such maritime use. The bulk of commercial fisheries adhere to MSY limits, but in heavily fished areas habitat disturbance and degradation occur and may mask smaller-scale successes in fish stock recovery. Aquaculture is also having an impact, with increases in direct discharges of nutrients and probably of other substances in this rapidly growing industry. Maritime industries are increasing noise pollution, contributing to the accumulation of hazardous substances and introducing more NIS. At the same time, climate change effects and associated ocean acidification are changing the distribution and/or abundance of species and undermining food webs, while cumulative pressures from human activities are driving ecological imbalances and climate change may in some cases be limiting positive responses to management.

New assessments highlight issues not addressed in previous QSRs. For instance, the Pelagic Habitats Thematic Assessment presents evidence that pelagic habitats in the OSPAR Maritime Area have experienced widespread changes over the past 60 years, with indicator assessments revealing a general pattern of decreasing phytoplankton and zooplankton abundance and/or biomass across the Greater North Sea, Celtic Seas, and Bay of Biscay and Iberian Coast Regions. At higher trophic levels, demersal fish populations are decreasing in most OSPAR Regions. The pressures on pelagic ecosystems include climate change; excessive inputs of nutrients; extraction of, or mortality/injury to, pelagic fish species by commercial and recreational fisheries and other activities; changes to hydrology; and introductions of non-indigenous species. The long-term trends across pelagic communities evidenced in the current assessment period are expected to continue and eventually impact higher food web levels and the ecosystem services being delivered by pelagic systems. This has serious implications not only for marine biota but for the majority of the valuable ecosystem services on which societies rely.

What has been done?

Measures taken by OSPAR to manage particular human activities or pressures, including renewable energy development have all contributed towards OSPAR’s goal of achieving clean, biologically diverse, and sustainably used seas © Shutterstock

Measures taken by OSPAR to manage particular human activities or pressures, including renewable energy development have all contributed towards OSPAR’s goal of achieving clean, biologically diverse, and sustainably used seas © Shutterstock

Measures taken by OSPAR to manage particular human activities or pressures, including eutrophication, renewable energy development, mineral extraction, dredging, oil and gas development, cable placement and scientific research have all contributed towards OSPAR’s goal of achieving clean, biologically diverse, and sustainably used seas. Where it has been shown that measures have been insufficient to stem marine degradation or biodiversity loss, OSPAR is developing action plans for more effective responses. For example, by 2025 OSPAR will have developed a regional action plan to reduce noise pollution (S8.O1 of NEAES 2030) and action plans for protecting specific biodiversity components are being discussed.

With reference to specific components of marine biodiversity, OSPAR has identified nine bird species, four marine mammal species, and 22 fish species (primarily those non-targeted by fisheries) as species of particular concern within the North-East Atlantic. OSPAR has agreed recommendations for actions to be taken by Contracting Parties, nationally and collectively, to protect and conserve these species. Similarly, OSPAR has identified 18 benthic habitats considered to be of concern in coastal, shelf and deep waters. Recommendations for actions to be taken by Contracting Parties nationally and collectively to protect and conserve this biodiversity have been adopted; these include steps to promote appropriate national legislation for the protection of a given habitat; consideration of how to strengthen the knowledge base, monitoring and assessment; steps to manage key human activities; calling for the designation of MPAs within their jurisdiction; and cooperation with relevant competent organisations on how to address key pressures (such as fishing and shipping) and on research. Progress has been made in efforts to strengthen data collection on these species and habitats of concern, in knowledge exchange, and in support for policy action.

Good progress has been made with the ecological coherence of the OSPAR network of MPAs , for example by extending the area coverage to further protect and support marine species; the designation of the North Atlantic Current and Evlanov Sea basin MPA in 2021 represents an important step forward for protecting critical habitat in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. OSPAR has been at the forefront of international efforts to tackle the marine litter problem since the adoption of its first Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter (RAP ML) (2014-2021).

Fisheries management is outside the competence of OSPAR, but fisheries authorities have succeeded in bringing the harvesting of more fish stocks to levels of Maximum Sustainable Yield. The collective arrangement with NEAFC provides an effective platform for sharing information and developing joint solutions for ABNJ. Measures are now also being taken with an ecosystem perspective, with measures to protect vulnerable habitats and species being introduced. Among the remaining issues to resolve are by-catch of sensitive/non-commercial species the need to integrate concepts of ecosystem function, such as trophic cascades, into fisheries management regulation, and also how management regimes can take account of the impact of fisheries on pelagic habitats and food webs.

Two legally binding OSPAR Decisions to create or establish Marine Protected Areas in the High Seas

Creation of the Charlie Gibbs North High Seas Marine Protected Area (OSPAR Decision 2012/1)
Establishment of the North Atlantic Current and Evlanov Sea basin Marine Protected Area (OSPAR Decision 2021/01)
Recommendations for managing human activities
OSPAR Recommendation 2003/05 to promote the use and implementation of Environmental Management Systems by the offshore industry, as amended by OSPAR Recommendation 2021/07

Recommendations for pressures (at the moment, one on marine litter, one on plastic pellet)

Regional Action Plan for Prevention and Management of Marine Litter in the North-East Atlantic (Agreement 2014-01) (Amended 2018). An updated action plan (RAP ML 2) was adopted in 2022
Recommendation on the reduction of plastic pellet loss into the marine environment (Recommendation 2021/06) to promote plastic pellet loss prevention standards and certification schemes, and sets out guidance on the content of these standards and schemes

Examples of recommendations for species and habitats protection

OSPAR Recommendation 2011/05 on furthering the protection and conservation of the Black-legged kittiwake, amended by OSPAR Recommendation 2020/01

OSPAR Recommendation 2013/07 on furthering the protection and conservation of the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) in Regions IV and V of the OSPAR maritime area

Recommendation 2013/09 on furthering the protection and conservation of the North Atlantic blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) in the OSPAR maritime area

OSPAR Recommendation 2016/03 on furthering the protection and conservation of the Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) in Regions I, II, III and IV of the OSPAR Maritime Area

OSPAR Recommendation 2021/05 on furthering the protection and conservation of kelp forest habitat in Region II, III and IV of the OSPAR Maritime Area

Has it worked?

OSPAR’s measures have had a positive effect but have not sufficiently reduced all significant pressures. For example, nitrate and phosphorus inputs from agriculture and wastewater continue to drive eutrophication in some areas; increasing underwater noise has not been addressed; threatened and declining species of marine animals and fish continue to be negatively affected by human activities; and both pelagic and benthic habitats and the food webs associated with them continue to be disturbed and degraded in many parts of the OSPAR Maritime Area. Also, there is far from complete understanding of how effective individual measures are in reducing the pressures they were meant to mitigate and in improving the status of the marine environment. The extent to which these cumulative pressures and management responses have affected individual ecosystem services and, as a corollary, human wellbeing, is only beginning to be understood but many trends in quality status remain cause for concern.

What do we do next?

In some countries and OSPAR Regions, significant potential expansion in certain activities is expected in the coming decades. These include aquaculture, renewable energy production, production and consumption of plastics, and there is the potential for new deep seabed mining activity. In light of these potential new pressures, and as overall conditions change, progress against all objectives will be tracked through OSPAR’s NEAES Implementation Plan. Measurable thresholds need to be set where applicable, to understand better how effective the existing measures are and monitoring is required to enable assessment of the progress being made towards such thresholds.  A planned review in 2025 will provide an opportunity to adjust the NEAES and, if necessary, take further action to protect and conserve marine species and habitats and, by enhancing ecosystem health, improve ecosystem services delivery and human wellbeing.

Restoration actions have been reported by several Contracting Parties, for example the integrated work in intertidal areas, which indicates that opportunities exist to expand this area of work within OSPAR.  Reporting has indicated growing experience of habitat restoration within Contracting Parties, measures to support natural recovery of inshore habitats and collaborative actions for monitoring and managing impacts on deep sea benthic habitats. A greater focus on how climate change impacts the OSPAR Maritime Area, together with investigations of the synergistic effects of climate change and other stressors like pollution, will facilitate management that enables maximum recovery of degraded habitats.

In some countries and OSPAR Regions, significant potential expansion in certain activities is expected in the coming decades, these include aquaculture © Shutterstock

In some countries and OSPAR Regions, significant potential expansion in certain activities is expected in the coming decades, these include aquaculture © Shutterstock

How will this affect our shared ocean?

The QSR 2023 has made unprecedented progress towards integrating the results of its assessments. With climate change affecting virtually all components of marine ecosystems in every Region, it is critically important to know how cumulative pressures combine with and exacerbate climate change and ocean acidification effects. The QSR 2023 has also systematically linked status findings to what lies behind them (pressures and the drivers of those pressures, as well as the adequacy of responses), while also linking status findings to the delivery of the ecosystem services that enhance human wellbeing. We now know that declines in environmental quality and insufficient management of damaging activities impact ecosystem health, rendering marine systems incapable of providing the many benefits they have historically delivered.

Looking Ahead

OSPAR recognises the need to increase its focus on identifying and implementing collective actions that add value to existing national actions and to the efforts undertaken under related EU policies, notably the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, and under other international mechanisms or instruments developed by other international organisations.

A good level of engagement in implementing the national actions proposed in the OSPAR recommendations is expected, particularly in areas where species and habitats are considered to be under threat and/ or in decline. The level of engagement in collective actions is expected to be enhanced as the result of a strong evidence base pointing to the need for such action.

OSPAR is embarking on the development of a series of biodiversity action plans, starting with marine birds and coastal shelf benthic habitats, in order to identify priority response measures which are well-defined, add value and can be delivered within the resources available to the OSPAR Contracting Parties.  In response to the findings of the QSR 2023, OSPAR will also initiate discussions on regional-scale ecosystem-based management, under the ‘Collective Arrangement’ and in cooperation with fisheries management bodies and other competent organisations, on initiatives to minimise, and where possible eliminate, incidental by-catch of fish, and will investigate the potential for using both MPAs and OECMs (Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures) to promote ecologically sustainable use.

The QSR 2023 underlines that achieving each of the strategic objectives of the NEAES is important for protecting the viability of our ocean and our own wellbeing. The assessments highlight the necessity of each of the actions outlined in NEAES 2030, as well as focusing attention on new actions that are needed.

The Contracting Parties have committed to delivery of the Strategy and are finding new ways to cooperate, using more robust monitoring and assessments. The powerful evidence base provided by the QSR process, strengthens OSPAR’s capacity to act, to conduct future assessments, and to engage with other international partners. Engagement cannot be an end in itself; the development of a practical approach to ecosystem-based management (EBM) will provide the opportunity and the mechanism to share evidence and common objectives for more sustainable use of the marine environment. Working with partners and drawing on international best practice, OSPAR will continue to work on the implementation of EBM and will notably start accounting for ecosystem services and natural capital works into the process of recognising, assessing and consistently accounting for human activities and their consequences. Significant scope now exists to tie assessments to strategic objectives, to better integrate information and to increase cooperation in ways that facilitate not only understanding but also science-based action.

The QSR 2023 summarises seven main avenues likely to lead to positive outcomes for the marine ecosystems of the OSPAR Maritime Area and for OSPAR’s Contracting Parties in the coming decades:

  1. OSPAR will continue to carry out the North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy 2030 in a coordinated and systematic manner, and track progress against strategic objectives.
  2. OSPAR will continue to analyse human activities affecting the OSPAR Maritime Area and consider their general impact, with more comprehensive and integrated assessments than ever before.
  3. OSPAR has identified species / habitats of concern and will continue to guide strategic action to safeguard these.
  4. OSPAR will continue to regulate pollutants and highlight ways to effectively mitigate impacts of human activity.
  5. OSPAR will expand the OSPAR MPA network, find new means of evaluating the effectiveness of management responses, and identify opportunities for restoration.
  6. OSPAR will continue to seek integration of monitoring and to use data delivered through innovative techniques to close knowledge gaps. In addition, the OSPAR Science Agenda, which will include the knowledge gaps identified in the QSR, will be used to enhance scientific research on topics where improved knowledge is most needed.
  7. OSPAR will continue to develop methodologies to assess the effectiveness of measures.

Cooperation and collaboration in the OSPAR framework have resulted in considerable progress in understanding and mitigating harmful anthropogenic impacts on the ecosystems of the North-East Atlantic and serve as a model for the world. OSPAR’s NEAES 2030 is clearly both comprehensive and highly ambitious; its realisation will require further commitment and action but the goals are well within reach. The OSPAR Contracting Parties and other relevant authorities are able to take strategic actions and enact effective policies, guided by OSPAR assessments and the decadal quality status reports that flow from them, and, in so doing, achieve clean, biodiverse, and productive seas that are sustainably used and valued by society. 

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