marine health
Karmenu Vella

Karmenu Vella explains how EU policies will innovate our approach to oceans and help to ensure the marine health of our planet

Our oceans may be vast, but they are also fragile. Sea levels are rising. In the Pacific Ocean, entire countries risk being wiped off the map. Oceans are getting warmer and more acidic, putting coral reefs, fish populations, and overall marine health at risk.

Illegal fishing is rampant in many of the world’s oceans. Up to 26 million tonnes of fish are caught illegally each year – at least 15% of world catches.

Marine litter is becoming a pernicious problem. By 2050, the world’s oceans could contain more plastic than fish. So, we are at a critical juncture. At the same time, we need the oceans more than ever.

Oceans regulate our climate: they redistribute heat around the globe and absorb 25% of the carbon emissions we produce. So tackling climate change starts and ends with the oceans.

The world population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Demand for food could rise by 60% – and the oceans can help provide it.

And oceans cover more than 70% of our planet. Why should we squeeze our economic activities onto the other 30% of our planet’s surface – especially when our land-based resources are already under strain?

Instead, we need to see the full potential of the ocean economy: traditional activities like fishing and coastal tourism, but also marine biotechnology, aquaculture, and clean energy from the sea.

The output of this global ocean economy is already estimated at €1.3 trillion. This could more than double by 2030.

The importance of our oceans

In short, there are plenty of reasons to turn our attention to the sea and to make sure our oceans stay healthy for generations to come.

That is why the European Union has been working for better-managed oceans for many years now.

  • We have reformed our Common Fisheries Policy, putting sustainable fishing at its very heart.
  • Our Integrated Maritime Policy makes sure that we properly plan and coordinate our various activities at sea.
  • We have asked the EU Member States to set aside 10% of their waters as marine protected areas by 2020, in a bid to help the most fragile marine eco-systems recover.
  • Our laws against illegal fishing are some of the toughest in the world.
  • And our ‘blue growth’ strategy seeks to marry strong economic growth from the ocean, with sound environmental principles. For example, we are joining forces with financial institutions, WWF and the Prince of Wales’ International Sustainability Unit, to ensure a sustainable approach to marine investment.

But focusing on European waters and coastlines is not enough. Fish swim freely across borders. So, increasingly, does plastic.

That is why we are also directing our attention beyond the EU.

One year ago, the European Union adopted an agenda to improve the way the world’s oceans are managed. Together with our international partners, we want to create a stronger system of ocean governance around the globe, reduce man-made pressures and advance international ocean research and science.

We realise that more international coordination and coherence are needed to achieve our goals. The more we work together, the bigger impact we will have.

And there is hope. In October this year, hundreds of ocean advocates met at the fourth international Our Ocean conference, hosted by the European Union in Malta to pledge tangible action for healthy oceans.

Action like making certain ocean areas off limits to fishing, giving marine life a chance to recover. Or tougher rules against illegal fishing and more patrols that make it harder for pirates and other villains to plunder our seas.

We also need to rethink our current economic model of consumption. Our grandparents grew up in a plastic-free world. Yet our grandchildren will still be finding the remains of our plastic, when they take their own grandchildren to the beach.

Many companies, big and small, are already considering ways to achieve a more circular economic model, focused on recycling and reusing resources.

This is the kind of innovation we need. And that is exactly what the Our Ocean conferences are about: bringing ocean advocates from all walks of life – policymakers and scientists, business owners and educators – together and asking them what they can do to keep our oceans healthy.

I am proud of the prominent part the EU is playing in creating a global alliance of ocean champions. So that future generations of fishermen around the world can continue to earn a sustainable living – and so that coastal communities around the world can thrive.


Karmenu Vella

Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries

European Commission

+32 2 299 96 96

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