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Commission: Europe's Seas and Coasts Under Threat from Climate Change and Pollution

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BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Protecting the delicate ecosystem of Europe's seas and coastal regions was the subject of a recent hearing in Parliament. A Commission Green paper last year identified the threat to Europe's coast of rising sea levels, pollution and over fishing. This is not a small problem - the EU has a coastline longer than Africa and the EU's sea area (territorial waters of members) is larger than its land mass. The hearing on 20 March brought together MEPs, experts and the EU's Fisheries Commissioner.

Emissions trading for ships

The 27 countries of the European Union are surrounded by four seas and two oceans. If world temperatures continue to increase this will bring rising sea levels - the impact of which could be serious for Europe. Ironically, emissions from ships (like aircraft) are not covered by the Kyoto protocol on pollution. In fact, since 1990 emissions from marine transport have risen 45%. As Jorgo Chatzimarkakis of the Liberal ALDE group remarked at the hearing "so far we have been ignoring the fact that sea transport – while it is true that it accounts for a greater amount of transported goods– emits more CO2 than air traffic". Socialist Willi Piecyk, rapporteur for the transport committee, said that "we have to consider emissions trading even for ships and vessels."

Fishermen: friend or foe of Europe's coasts?

Simon Cripps of the World Wide Fund for Nature was unequivocal on this point at the hearing. He said that commercial fisheries had put the whole ecosystem at risk and that “illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is a significant threat to maritime biodiversity."

Peter Mortensen, a former chair of the "Social Dialogue Committee for Maritime Fisheries" said that "there are a number of paragraphs in the Green Paper that seem to be more concerned with fish than with fishermen”. He pointed out that working conditions for fishermen are very difficult and that wages are very low. In total 5 million jobs in the EU are linked to marine activity of one kind or another.

Town planning for the seas

One solution could be "Marine Spatial Planning", a kind of town planning for the seas. This approach identifies different areas and recommends what activities would be best suited for the region. It also could be used find "at risk" zones.

This could have an impact on the possible development of an anti-global warming policy of "CO2 sequestering". This involves hiding CO2 by pumping it underground. Frederico Cardicos of the Azores regional administration warned however that this could "endanger a largely unknown ecosystem".

Seán Ó'Neachtain of the Union of Europe for the Nations Group warned against strict EU legislation. He said that existing regulation was impinging on communities of sparsely populated coastal regions and that “people are not taken into the equation”.

However, no matter what approach the EU takes all speakers were agreed that without international cooperation the welfare of the world's oceans cannot be guaranteed. As Karin Roth, Parliamentary State Secretary for the German Presidency put it: "the sea is globally connected. There won’t be the division into "clean EU-sea and the non-European-Sea".

What happens next?

The hearing brought together five of Parliament's Committees: Transport, Environment, Industry, Fisheries and Regional Development. On 4-5 June the Transport Committee will consider a draft report on this subject and the Plenary session of 18-21 June will vote on the report if it is ready. The Commission's consultation with interested parties is open until the end of June. Before the end of 2007 the Commission will address a Communication to the Council and Parliament summarising the results of the consultation process and proposing the way forward.

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