The complexity of a cross-border project: new challenges for the future of the sea
A project that aims to study and learn about the coastal ecosystems of two nations is, of necessity, extremely complicated. There are many elements to be taken into account and managed, in order to organise the project harmoniously. GEF Adriatic is an essential part of a process that will lead to a new awareness of the variety of ecosystems that characterize the entire Mediterranean Sea. Marina Markovic, programme officer at PAP/RAC, and Anis Zarrouk, programme officer at SPA/RAC, outline the key elements of the project in this interview.
What defines 'Good Environmental Status'? Does it only relate to nature, or does it involve human activity as well?
Good Environmental Status – GES for short – refers to the preferred state of the marine environment, both in terms of the biological and physio-chemical conditions of the sea, and also of the level of pressures marine ecosystems are exposed to. This means human activities are included in the definition, since humans themselves are part of the ecosystem. GES represents a situation where human activities are at a sustainable level.
In order to define actions and policies to achieve GES, countries have to measure current environmental status through surveys, right? Can you tell us how you assess something as complex as this?
Environmental status is assessed through 11 marine components that include the distribution and condition of selected key marine habitats, marine reptiles, seabirds and mammals (these are all aspects of biodiversity); the functioning of food webs; the presence, abundance and impact of non-indigenous species; the levels and impacts of fisheries; hydrological alterations; and various types of pollution such as pollution from nutrients, hazardous substances and marine litter, as well as impacts from underwater noise – so there is a broad list of interlinked components to consider. It is important to stress that these assessments go beyond the marine environment itself and consider the entire coastal zone, to ensure a deeper understanding of land-sea interactions.
In order to assess whether GES has been achieved, recovered, maintained or not achieved, a comparison between a preferred state (GES) and a current state needs to be carried out. In other words, a reference is needed, against which the actual or potentially changed situation can be compared. Areas with limited human impact – such as Marine Protected Areas – are usually chosen for this purpose. The actual assessment can only be done through a series of surveys - monitorings. These are carried out on the specific predefined locations, in different seasons throughout the year, and also on an annual basis to build up a time series of data. Such monitorings are definitely not a one-off effort – they should be undertaken regularly, as part of a 6-year cycle.
How do you ensure these monitorings are actually being regularly implemented?
In order to ensure these are regularly undertaken, integrated monitoring programmes are developed, incorporating all the relevant details on where, how and when surveys should take place for each of the components of the marine and coastal environment. Integrated monitoring programmes need to be officially adopted, thus becoming a legal obligation. In Albania and Montenegro, together with national teams of experts such monitoring programmes are developed and are in the process of formal adoption.
How many players need to be involved in order to make the assessment reliable and accepted as a starting point for planning further actions?
In order to carry out a comprehensive assessment, all of the components above need to be assessed in a harmonised way, meaning that the various results are considered together, not in isolation. This requires a broad spectrum of specialists in marine biology, chemistry, oceanography and other environmental disciplines. It’s best if these types of assessments are carried out by national institutions. Nevertheless, for many aspects – such as marine mammals or marine litter – assessments should not be limited to the national level: there are no boundaries for these topics, and regional and subregional approaches are needed. Cooperation and joint assessments across borders and between different scientific institutions are essential to understand what regional GES looks like and how it can be jointly achieved. This is particularly relevant in our region given the enclosed nature of the Adriatic Sea.
How important is it to keep the scientific, political and socio-cultural aspects together, and how do you do that?
There is no point in performing an assessment unless it leads to follow-up actions to improve environmental conditions where needed, or maintain them where they are already ‘good’. But these follow-up actions are not solely down to scientists: they require the involvement of a wide range of decision-makers and public institutions, as well as civil society. Above all, they need policy and financial support at the highest political level.
Can the marine spatial planning process help to achieve GES?
Absolutely! Marine spatial planning is the process by which spatial and temporal uses of marine space are allocated. It guides blue economy sectors on where and when their operations can take place, but it can also restrict activities in sensitive or biologically important areas. Scientific assessments and surveys to determine environmental status, as well as proposed follow-up measures, can be partly implemented through marine spatial plans to ensure the achievement of GES.
Are there any challenges that you did not envisage at the beginning of this project?
The GEF Adriatic project aimed to deliver the whole ‘package’ needed to achieve GES: select species, choose locations where yearly monitoring needs to be performed across all ecosystem components, define methodologies, undertake preliminary marine surveys to test sample locations and also to determine national capacity needs for such integrated monitoring, assess the status of the marine environment, and propose measures for improving it. We also delivered a tailor-made national database where all the data collected during monitoring could be stored and visually presented to facilitate future assessments. Monitoring of this kind is a regional obligation under the Barcelona Convention and EU law, so our database facilitates compliance.
The process required a significant amount of data and data series, collected over long time periods – more than was initially available, which meant we faced some unexpected issues when we began. The integration processes between the different components, institutions etc turned out to be more challenging in practice than in theory, particularly since this was the first time such an integrated approach had been attempted in Albania, Montenegro and indeed the Mediterranean. And above all, we did not expect a global pandemic that almost prevented us from operating – but thanks to the commitment of the national and international team of experts we did it!
What, in your opinion, are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?
This approach is really important, as it provides a comprehensive standardized assessment of all the relevant components of the marine and coastal environment, including how they interconnect and interact. It represents a step towards an integrated overview of what is good and what needs to be improved in the marine and coastal environment, the causes of the problems, and the most appropriate measures to address those causes. The fact that these processes are obligatory requirements for the Contracting Parties under the Barcelona Convention and EU Member States ensures their implementation.
However, the process is a costly one, requiring significant technical capacity and input from (preferably) national institutions: this is perhaps the biggest challenge. Nevertheless, different funding opportunities do exist, so with collaborative efforts it can be easily overcome.
How is the current situation in the Adriatic region in terms of GES?
We are not there yet. Lots of efforts are underway around the region, but the Adriatic is still under serious pressure: regional cooperation and collaboration are needed now more than ever to turn the tide towards Good Environmental Status for our shared marine resource.