As Commissioner in charge of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, I fully support the petitions recently initiated by the Expédition MED, Change.org and Polygnosi concerning the continuous contamination of the Mediterranean Sea from plastic particles.
I understand the scale of the problem as well as the outrage of citizens at dirty beaches, at plastic bags found in deepwater Mediterranean canyons, at plastic particles ingested by marine mammals.
Preserving the Mediterranean Sea is not only a matter of environmental sustainability. It is also a matter of considerable economic and social implications.
The problem is really complex. It requires a combination of measures and a close cooperation at many levels (regional, national, European, international).
Last November, a Workshop took place in Brussels with the title “Marine Litter: Plastic Soup and More”. The workshop, organised by the Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik, was attended by around 90 representatives from Member States governments, institutes, stakeholders such as the plastic industry and NGO’s. The European Commission will also play an active role in the upcoming 5th International Marine Debris conference in March 2011.
The European Commission has a strategy. It is based on:
- Setting limits on the levels of plastics allowed in the seas. The Marine Framework Strategy Directive mandates the monitoring of levels of contamination in European seas. “Good environmental status” can only be attained when levels of contaminants do not cause harm to coastal and marine environments;
- Identification of toxic chemicals through the REACH Regulation which obliges manufacturers and importers to gather information on the properties of their chemical substances to register their toxicity in a central database;
- Further research to understand the scale of the problem and to find solutions to minimise it. A call for proposals was recently launched that aims to put industrial, scientific and environmental bodies together to address societal problems such as these (Mobilisation and Mutual Learning Action Plans on Societal Challenges call – it closes January 2011). We understand that a consortium including European Plastics Converters is preparing a bid;
As far as my area of policy responsibility is concerned, I am committed to making the best use of the tools available in the Integrated Maritime Policy. As a priority, I will support the development of a better monitoring infrastructure so that Member States can collaborate to observe the marine environment. This is described in the “Marine Knowledge 2020″ Communication which I proposed for adoption last September. I will also explore how the Integrated Maritime Surveillance facility and the development of a common information sharing environment for the EU maritime domain can contribute to monitoring marine pollution.
Our European Fisheries Fund gives financial assistance to small scale fishers participating in the collection of litter and lost fishing gears. In France this practice is already in place in the context of the “contrats bleus“. I am very interested in the dissemination of this type of measures whereby, for example, fishermen collect plastic garbage during spawning seasons, during which they are not allowed to fish.
We need more than just legislation. We need better enforcement, but most importantly we need motivation of all those concerned by the protection of the Mediterranean Sea, from industry to the simple citizens. It is important to realize that actions can be local, where the commitment of local governments and their citizens is greater.
I am committed to work with all the concerned citizens to bring about the necessary change, to see current existing legislation be applied more efficiently. We have to investigate the efficacy of recent national initiatives, such as the ban of plastic bags that started in Italy in the beginning of the year. If this measure is to make the difference, we should explore the possibility of generalising it. We have to work together with the industry and the maritime sector, as it is in their common interest to eliminate plastic litter from our seas.
In the coming weeks, together with my colleagues in the European Commission who are responsible for related policy fields, I will work towards an integrated action plan to address the problem of marine plastic litter in a cross-cutting approach.
It is not known whether the problem of plastic marine litter is improving or worsening. However the attention devoted to the issue by environmental groups and citizens is significant. And I would like to thank them for being vocal towards stakeholders and decision-makers. Now, we owe them a concrete reply.