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Human Activities Thematic Assessment

Executive Summary

This thematic assessment summarises information on human activities affecting the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic.

The main activities described are those covered in the feeder reports on extraction of aggregates and other minerals; agriculture; aquaculture; fisheries; production and consumption of plastics; renewable energy development; shipping; tourism and recreation; and management of waste water; and in the thematic assessment on oil and gas extraction.

The assessment also describes, in the Impact section, the ongoing OSPAR work on ecosystem services and natural capital, and how it is used in the overall QSR 2023 assessment of the state of the marine environment. OSPAR’s general approach to cumulative impacts assessment is described in the section on bow-tie analysis. There is no attempt to construct a bow-tie analysis for all human activities.

Q1. Identify the problems? Are they the same in all OSPAR Regions?

The marine environment of the North-East Atlantic continues to experience multiple pressures from a wide range of human activities. These are particularly intense in parts of the Greater North Sea, Celtic Seas, and the Bay of Biscay and Iberian Coast. While levels of activity are lower in Arctic Waters and the Wider Atlantic, increases in some activities are likely to pose greater risks in future in those OSPAR Regions.

All activities covered in the assessment exert pressures on the marine environment. For example, agriculture is a significant source of nutrients contributing to eutrophication; fisheries influence ecosystems through removal of target and non-target species, and through disturbance of the seabed; multiple activities are sources of contaminants and litter, or routes for the introduction and spread of non-indigenous species; shipping noise is a significant pressure in some areas, such as the Greater North Sea; and new or increasing activities, such as offshore renewable energy or deep seabed mining, bring additional pressures. Additional stress from the pressure of climate change processes compounds the impacts from these activities and may further weaken ecosystem resilience.

The underlying societal drivers of activities in the North-East Atlantic – such as economic development, demand for energy, food security, housing and infrastructure, and societal wellbeing – remain strong. The scale of future activities will be influenced by factors such as the level of economic growth, including the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the extent of globalisation, rates of technological change, and public perception and policy. For example, major expansion of offshore renewable energy is being driven by improved technology combined with political commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Drivers are affected by economic shocks, such as the financial crisis of 2008, but the impacts of shocks may be temporary rather than fundamentally altering the long-term intensity of activities in the North-East Atlantic.

Among the key trends in activities in the OSPAR Maritime Area since the QSR 2010, and potential future trends:

  • marine fisheries landings were relatively stable, with the majority of stocks now fished at levels considered sustainable from a fish stock management perspective. Landings to 2030 are projected to remain approximately unchanged, but uncertainties remain;
  • overall levels of shipping freight and passenger traffic were little changed; future levels are uncertain. There may be increases in some areas, for example in Arctic Waters, although the scale and timing are uncertain;
  • aquaculture production, notably in Norway, has risen somewhat. Norway and some other countries have ambitions for future expansion, including in offshore environments and using shore-based systems;
  • production of hydrocarbons decreased by 28% from 2009 to 2019, while the number of installations with emissions and discharges reported was the same. Drilling activity increased over the period, mostly for development wells. Pressures from offshore oil and gas activities are greatest in the Greater North Sea, followed by Arctic Waters and the Celtic Seas. In the Bay of Biscay and Iberian Coast and the Wider Atlantic, the number of installations is low, and the pressures in these OSPAR Regions are considered to be relatively low;
  • offshore wind energy capacity increased approximately tenfold, predominantly in the Greater North Sea and Irish Sea. Further major growth is planned up to 2030 (fourfold or more from 2019 levels) and beyond (e.g., 300 GW in European Union (EU) waters by 2050 compared with 12 GW now);
  • aggregate (sand and gravel) extraction varied between years. Additional requirements for sea defences are anticipated in future. Deep seabed mining for minerals may be a new pressure in the North-East Atlantic in the coming years;
  • tourism has grown across OSPAR Regions since 2010, including cruise tourism and expedition tourism in potentially sensitive habitats, with further growth anticipated in the future.

Q2. What has been done?

Examples of measures taken by OSPAR and other organisations to reduce the environmental pressures from activities include:

  • controls on fisheries put in place by the EU, national governments, and the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission;
  • controls on pressures from shipping, including on nitrogen and sulphur emissions, oil pollution, release of ballast water and biofouling;
  • improved understanding and implementation of measures to mitigate the environmental pressures from aquaculture, including better modelling of impacts, and standards to limit escapes of farmed fish and sea lice infestation;
  • planned reforms to agricultural policy in the EU and United Kingdom would build on existing measures and may provide incentives to further reduce pressures, such as the release of nutrients and pesticides;
  • measures have been introduced to reduce plastic waste, including restrictions on single-use plastic items and fishing gear, new provisions for port reception facilities, and measures to tackle pollution from microplastics;
  • environmental assessment and permitting of offshore wind installations consider issues such as the siting of turbines (e.g., in relation to bird displacement and collision risk) and controls on construction noise.

Measures specifically taken by OSPAR are referred to in the assessment.

Q3. Did it work?

Management measures and knowledge of how to implement them have increased since QSR 2010. OSPAR measures have delivered improvements: for example, there has been a significant decrease in litter on beaches in most OSPAR Regions. Other examples of the impacts of measures are: an increasingly large proportion of commercial fish stocks is fished at levels consistent with Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY); air pollution from shipping has decreased (although with increased discharges to water through exhaust gas cleaning systems as a result), as have incidents of oil pollution. For some activities (e.g., extraction of sand and gravel, management of aquaculture) management measures are well established, although gaps in knowledge remain.

At the same time, these measures have not sufficiently reduced all significant pressures. For example, nitrate and phosphorous inputs from agriculture and waste water remain a cause of eutrophication in some areas; some aspects of the ecosystem, including threatened and declining species of marine animals and fish, are negatively affected by fisheries, including non-targeted species impacted through incidental by-catch, and there are pressures from bottom trawling on benthic communities. Also, guidance from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on reduction of shipping noise has not had a significant effect on noise levels to date.

In some cases, as for the large projected increase in offshore renewable energy, development of management measures and assessment of their success, as well as analysis of cumulative impacts, is relatively new. Judging the effectiveness (in terms of reducing environmental pressures and in terms of cost-effectiveness) of management measures requires assessment over many years and a well-balanced approach to cumulative assessment, and this will remain an important area in which to develop OSPAR capacity in the future.

The QSR 2023 status assessments include details of management measures taken in response to key pressures on particular species or habitats. 

Management measures are well established for aquaculture, although gaps in knowledge remain. © Shutterstock

Management measures are well established for aquaculture, although gaps in knowledge remain. © Shutterstock

Q4. How does this field affect the overall quality status?

This thematic assessment encompasses a broad range of human activities in the North-East Atlantic. These activities have multiple effects on the marine environment. Information on quality status can be found in other QSR assessments.

Q5. What do we do next?

OSPAR is committed, in line with the North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy (NEAES) 2030 operational objectives, to addressing the following existing, expanding or only partly understood pressures, and as a priority to implementing measures to manage the activities sustainably:

  • addressing the environmental impacts of the major expansion of offshore renewable energy, in particular of offshore wind. This includes regional guidance on offshore wind energy and work on large-scale cumulative assessment of developments;
  • agreeing a Regional Action Plan on underwater noise.  This would include ways to manage the impact of continuous noise, especially from shipping, as well as of impulsive noise, making the best use of the modelling tools now available;
  • reducing, together with other competent authorities, pressures from human activities causing physical loss and disturbance to seabed habitats, including pressures from fishing and deep seabed mining;
  • implementing a second Regional Action Plan for Marine Litter (RAP ML 2) to address litter from relevant land- and sea-based human activities, and making use of updated indicator assessments to evaluate progress against OSPAR’s reduction targets;
  • limiting inputs of nutrients and organic matter into the marine environment, including inputs from agriculture, waste water discharges, and aquaculture;
  • reducing and eliminating inputs of hazardous substances, including contaminants of emerging concern, from sources including waste water discharges, agriculture, shipping, oil and gas operations, and aquaculture;
  • developing a management approach to minimise the number of non-indigenous species introduced via human activity, including from shipping, recreational boating, and aquaculture;
  • working to minimise, and where possible eliminate, incidental by-catch of marine mammals, birds, turtles, and fish;
  • reviewing the risks from new, emerging and increasing pressures on the marine environment, as identified in this assessment, and prioritising them for action and the adoption of measures;
  • developing methods for the analysis of cumulative effects in the marine ecosystems of the North-East Atlantic.

Future climate change impact assessments of the OSPAR Maritime Area and its uses should review how climate change is affecting human activities and how they are adapting.

These, and other potential areas where OSPAR will consider action, are described further in the main body of this thematic assessment. This includes further work to update and take account of scenarios of trends and developments in human activities affecting the North-East Atlantic.

Human Activities Assessments


Lead author: Terence Ilott

Supporting authors: Bee Berx, Federico Cornacchia, Adrian Judd, Saravanan Marappan, Lex Oosterbaan, Jos Schilder and Rob van der Veeren

Supported by: Environmental Impacts of Human Activities Committee (EIHA), Intersessional Correspondence Group on the Quality Status Report (ICG-QSR), Intersessional Correspondence Group on Ecosystem Assessment Outlook – Cumulative Effects Assessment (ICG-ECOC), Intersessional Correspondence Group on Economic and Social analyses (ICG-ESA), Climate Change Expert Group (CCEG), Offshore Industry Committee deliverables to the Quality Status Report (OIC-ICG-QSR), Intersessional Correspondence Group for Protection and Conservation of Species and Habitats (ICG-POSH) and OSPAR Secretariat


OSPAR, 2023. Human Activities Thematic Assessment. In: OSPAR, 2023: Quality Status Report 2023. OSPAR Commission, London. Available at:

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