Greater focus on North Sea biodiversity needed to cope with changing climate

Human activities have affected the North Sea ecosystem for centuries. More recently, climate change is also changing the structure and functioning of one of the world’s most studied marine ecosystems and one of the busiest fishing and shipping areas.

Human intervention in the North Sea began around 1,000 years ago with the construction of dikes, which led to the loss of wetlands. While the Industrial Revolution introduced river management and waste disposal, the end of the Second World War ushered in an era of fishing, pollution and nutrient eutrophication that significantly impacted marine life.

Climate change

More recently, the effects of climate change have also become apparent in the North Sea. The sea is warming twice as fast as other seas and oceans. “Climate change manifests itself more quickly in shallow seas, which means that biodiversity changes more quickly,” Hans Polet of the Flemish Institute for Agricultural, Fisheries and Food Research (ILVO) told Knack.

As seawater warms, fish species will change. For example, cold-water fish will move north, while species that thrive in warmer water will move towards the North Sea.

Polet believes that climate change is adding even more instability to these shifts. “There are always small fluctuations, but now we are seeing drastic shifts in fish stocks,” he argues. This growing instability, he says, can have extreme consequences for the ecosystem.

“The poorer an ecosystem, the greater the consequences,” Polet continues. The more complex a biodiverse ecosystem is, the better it can absorb shocks such as climate change. Maintaining that biodiversity will be very important to ensure some stability”.

The good news is that the Belgian government adopted the new Marine Environment Act at the end of 2022. This law provides a legal basis for the designation of a marine protected area.

Impact assessment

Under the Marine Environment Act, activities such as sand extraction or bottom-disturbing fishing in habitat areas will now be subject to an assessment of their impact on nature. If the effect is too significant, the licence or concession for the activity must be refused, or mitigation measures may be imposed.

Fines for marine pollution have also been significantly increased. The proceeds will go into a fund to restore the marine environment or buy equipment to clean up pollution at sea.

Nature-inclusive design

Despite the good intentions, the 4SEA coalition – a collaboration between Bond Beter Leefmilieu, Greenpeace Belgium, Natuurpunt, WWF Belgium and the West Flemish Environmental Federation – is calling for more attention to be paid to nature-integrated design.

As an example, they point to the new energy island of Princess Elisabeth Island, which will be part of Europe’s largest green energy plant. Neither the environmental impact assessment, the tendering process or the budgeting of the project takes marine life into account.

4SEA urges North Sea minister Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open VLD) and Energy minister Tinne Van der Straeten (Groen) to take swift action. The coalition urges the Marine Environment Act to be put into practice immediately.