OSPAR Ecological Quality Objectives: the utility of health indicators for the North Sea
OSPAR Ecological Quality Objectives: the utility of health indicators for the North Sea. - ICES Journal of
OSPAR Ecological Quality Objectives: the utility of health indicators for the North Sea
Peter Heslenfeld 0
E. Lisette Enserink 0
0 P. Heslenfeld: Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management , Rijkswaterstaat North Sea Directorate, PO Box 5807, 2280 HV Rijswijk , The Netherlands. E. L. Enserink: Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, Rijkswaterstaat Centre for Water Management
Committed to the ecosystem approach to management, OSPAR has accumulated 15 years of experience in developing a conceptual framework for ecological indicators and objectives, and in applying the framework to the North Sea as a test case. These Ecological Quality Objectives (EcoQOs) have become a model for the implementation of the new European Marine Strategy Framework Directive. We describe the history of EcoQO development, its current status, and future needs. We also present our positive and negative experiences in developing the approach, and conclude that regional sea conventions and marine research institutes in Europe should join forces to accelerate the development of ecosystem indicators and objectives, using existing concepts.
EcoQO; indicators; Marine Strategy Framework Directive; North Sea; OSPAR
The ecosystem approach has been a guiding principle for the
management of the North Sea since the 1990s. The OSPAR
Commission has called for the development and implementation
of this concept, particularly through its adoption of Annex V of
the Protection and Conservation of the Ecosystems and
Biological Diversity of the Maritime Area to the OSPAR
Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of
the Northeast Atlantic
, and the consecutive
North Sea Ministerial Meetings, starting with the 1997
Intermediate Ministerial Meeting on the Integration of Fisheries
and Environmental Issues
. The ecosystem approach
has been defined as “the comprehensive integrated management of
human activities based on the best available scientific knowledge
about the ecosystem and its dynamics, in order to identify and
take action on influences which are critical to the health of
marine ecosystems, thereby achieving sustainable use of ecosystem
goods and services and maintenance of ecosystem integrity”
. The application of the precautionary principle is
central to the ecosystem approach.
The ecosystem approach puts people, and how they use natural
resources, at the centre of decision-making. However, applying the
principles of the ecosystem approach is not straightforward; it
requires operational tools. With this in mind, OSPAR started to
develop an ecological quality (EcoQ) framework in 1992, in
collaboration with the International Council for the Exploration of
the Sea (ICES). Ecological Quality Objectives (EcoQOs) are at
the centre of this framework. They are being developed to link a
policy for taking action to the indicators, which are obtained
from monitoring and can denote whether an objective is being
met or progress is being made. Thus, indicators are an integral
part of the EcoQ framework
In 2002, OSPAR accepted an invitation from the fifth North Sea
Conference to develop a North Sea pilot project for EcoQOs
. The EcoQO Handbook
implementation process, 2007– 2010. EcoQOs specify the desired
state of an ecological component or mechanism and can take the
form of agreed targets to be reached or limits that should not be
breached. An EcoQO might be defined relative to a “reference level”
rather than in absolute terms. Therefore, EcoQOs allow contracting
parties to define the qualities desired for the marine environment,
taking into account how they are affected by human activities.
Eventually, new management measures to control human impacts
may need to be developed or existing measures enforced. When
necessary, gaps have to be addressed or improvements sought.
describes the role and actions of OSPAR in
relation to the development of the ecosystem approach. We
focus on the development of EcoQOs for the North Sea and
describe the history of its development, the present
state-of-the-art, and our positive and negative experiences while
elaborating this framework. The new European Marine Strategy
Framework Directive (MSFD) requires the development of a
comprehensive set of ecological indicators and related objectives by
2012, to measure the progress in reaching the aim of good
environmental status. We call for the active involvement of marine
research institutes and ICES to accelerate progress.
The OSPAR framework
defines EcoQ as “an overall
expression of the structure and function of the marine ecosystem
taking into account the biological community and natural
physiographic, geographic, and climatic factors as well as physical
and chemical conditions including those resulting from human
activities”. An EcoQ element is defined as “an individual aspect
of overall EcoQ”, and an EcoQO as “the desired level of an
EcoQ”. The definition stipulates “such a level may be set in relation
to a reference level”.
A short history
The current status of the EcoQO system within the marine
environmental management arena may be better understood in
light of its history, which reveals a steadily growing political
interest but slow progress towards implementation (Figure 1).
The OSPAR 1992 Joint Assessment and Monitoring
Programme (JAMP) addressed the question of how ecosystem
health can be assessed to determine the extent of human impact.
This topic provided the basis for a series of OSPAR workshops
held in 1992, 1993, and 1995, to develop a conceptual framework
for defining EcoQOs and establishing criteria for selecting metrics
or indicators that relate to ecosystem properties and human use.
The 1997 Intermediate Ministerial Meeting requested that an
ecosystem approach to the management of the North Sea be
developed and implemented
. In the same year, progress
on EcoQO development was reported to OSPAR, including
proposals to use the North Sea as a test case and to ask ICES to
develop methods for expressing EcoQ. However, it was not until
Annex V of the OSPAR Convention had been adopted (1998)
and had entered into force (2000) that OSPAR asked ICES for
advice on this issue in its 2001 work programme (“to develop
EcoQOs for benthic communities, fish communities, sea
mammals, and seabirds”), as well as asking ICES to include the
methodological development for further proposals in its
longterm work programme.
Three more OSPAR workshops were held between 1999 and
2004. The 1999 workshop agreed on the general concept
underlying the framework and selected ten EcoQ elements for which
EcoQOs would have to be developed for presentation at the fifth
North Sea Conference in 2002. A first set of EcoQOs was presented
to stakeholders at the 2001 workshop (mainly attended by
policymakers and scientists, with only limited participation by user
groups) and in the next year, North Sea ministers adopted the
EcoQO framework and ten EcoQOs
. OSPAR and
ICES were invited to cooperate on developing a comprehensive
and consistent scheme of EcoQOs by 2005 and to report to the
sixth North Sea Conference in 2006. The 2004 workshop merely
reported on the progress made on the ten most advanced
EcoQOs, but OSPAR’s report to that (last) North Sea
passed almost unnoticed because the
agenda was dedicated to fisheries and shipping.
By the time this first set had advanced to a stage where it could
be used in a test environment, the European Marine Strategy had
developed into a Framework Directive
. The publication
of the MSFD in June 2008
has changed the scene from
a relatively non-committal, learning-by-doing process (from a
Member State’s perspective) to a potentially binding set of
objectives laid down in a legal framework: EcoQOs have become
examples of objectives and associated indicators to be developed
further under the MSFD. There is both relief and fear among
EU Member States. Relief because OSPAR has apparently
developed a useful concept, and all the energy that went into its
development has not been wasted. Moreover, contracting parties were
given a fair opportunity to gain sufficient practical experience to
fine-tune indicators and objectives according to their needs.
There is fear because of uncertainty about the real-world
performance of the EcoQOs and their practical and economic
consequences. The focus of the discussions in OSPAR has changed
from mere scientific feasibility to the consequences of
implementation, particularly in terms of the costs of monitoring and
subsequent management measures. Meanwhile, countries
responsible for other OSPAR regions are showing an increasing interest in
expanding or translating the North Sea framework to their region.
Current state-of-the-art and future needs
Fifteen years of development have delivered a limited set of
EcoQOs, which are now being tested in practice by North Sea
countries. Table 1 lists the EcoQ elements and EcoQOs that
are currently being considered by OSPAR and highlights those
that are part of the North Sea pilot project
Although the name might suggest otherwise, not all EcoQOs
address state and impact elements of a driving force – pressure –
state – impact – response (DPSIR) system
instance, EcoQO 3.1 on oiled guillemots (Table 1) does a better
job defining the level of oil pollution (pressure) than defining
the impact on the guillemot populations. Further, EcoQOs do
not relate to single human activities. For example, EcoQO 2.1
on seal populations may not be met because of virus infections,
habitat changes, bycatches, or other factors.
OSPAR will publish an evaluation of the performance of the
test set in 2008, including consequences for monitoring, needs
for harmonization, and additional management measures
required. An evaluation of the entire EcoQ framework is
planned in 2009 and will primarily address the framework’s
power to assess the quality status of the North Sea. This is an
important issue because the upcoming OSPAR Quality Status
Report 2010 will be the very first that uses the EcoQOs to
inform the overall assessment. This evaluation is also important
for the implementation of the MSFD, which requires, by 2012,
an operational definition of “good environmental status” as the
main objective to be achieved in 2020 by taking appropriate
management measures, as well as a breakdown into concrete
objectives and indicators. So far, the generic, qualitative
descriptors of good environmental status have only been addressed
partly by the current set of EcoQOs. Therefore, OSPAR needs to
1. Commercial fish species
2. Marine mammals 2.1. Seal population trends in the North Sea
a. Harbour seal population size: taking into account natural population dynamics and trends, there should
be no decline in harbour seal population size (as measured by numbers hauled out) of 10% as represented
in a 5-year running mean or point estimates (separated by up to 5 years) within any of 11 subunits of the
North Sea. These subunits are: Shetland; Orkney; North and East Scotland; Southeast Scotland; the Greater
Wash/Scroby Sands; the Netherlands Delta area; the Wadden Sea; Heligoland; Limfjord; the Kattegat, the
Skagerrak, and the Oslo fjord; the west coast of Norway south of 628N.
b. Grey seal pup production: taking into account natural population dynamics and trends, there should be no
decline in pup production of grey seals of 10% as represented in a 5-year running mean or point estimates
(separated by up to 5 years), and in breeding sites, within any of nine subunits of the North Sea. These
subunits are: Orkney; Fast Castle/Isle of May; the Farne Islands; Donna Nook; the French North Sea and
Channel coasts; the Netherlands coast; the Schleswig-Holstein Wadden Sea; Heligoland; Kjørholmane
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2.2. Bycatch of harbour porpoises
Annual bycatch levels should be reduced to below 1.7% of the best population estimate
6. Plankton communities
6.1. Supporting eutrophication EcoQOs 9.1.2 and 9.1.3 (see issue 9)
Established elements and objectives are emboldened; those currently under development appear in regular font.
aIn this context, “reference points” are those for spawning-stock biomass, but also including those for fishing mortality, if these have been agreed upon by
the competent authority for fishery management.
start filling the gaps as soon as possible, using the framework for
biodiversity monitoring and assessment to identify the most
(cf. Johnson, 2008)
OSPAR has only just started to investigate the application of
EcoQOs in other regions. This requires selection of the relevant
issues, elements, and objectives, which may not be the same as
for the North Sea.
In OSPAR, progress is pursued through a system that delegates
responsibilities to “lead countries”. A lead country may develop
a particular issue according to its own views, reporting regularly
to OSPAR. This system does not easily generate commitment
from other contracting parties at the decision-making level.
Norway and the Netherlands have led the general EcoQO
development. Belgium, Germany, Portugal, the UK, and the Common
Wadden Sea Secretariat have taken responsibility for developing
one or more specific EcoQOs. Having been heavily involved in
the development of the EcoQO framework, we have had both
positive and negative experiences.
High responsiveness to political requests: the ecosystem
approach becomes the guiding principle for North Sea
EcoQO development has been accelerated by the North Sea
Ministerial Conferences and the MSFD’s efforts at raising
awareness of the urgent need for a suitable tool to implement the
ecosystem approach. For almost a decade, EcoQO development
had been considered a scientific playground for a few experts,
who were unable to exhibit convincing results to the world of
OSPAR. It was primarily growing political commitment to the
ecosystem approach that turned the EcoQOs into a promising
concept, thereby enabling OSPAR to demonstrate how they can
be used in practice.
Much knowledge available
Unlike other marine regions, the North Sea has been studied
relatively well, and long time-series of data have allowed the
development of a variety of EcoQOs. It may be difficult for other regions
to develop an equally comprehensive set that can fulfil the current
requirements of quality and robustness.
Quality control by ICES
Although formal ICES advice on EcoQOs only commenced in
2001, informal contacts with ICES Working Groups have inspired
early development of EcoQOs. In particular, the working groups
on ecosystem effects of fishing, marine mammal population
dynamics and habitats, seabird ecology, benthos ecology, marine
chemistry, and phytoplankton ecology have provided valuable
input. ICES contributed to the conceptual framework by
developing criteria for a good EcoQO, by reviewing OSPAR products, and
initiating studies for new EcoQOs
(ICES, 2001, 2003, 2004)
general, the advice has improved the scientific credibility of the
framework, thereby facilitating commitment of the wider scientific
community as well as other stakeholders.
Tested in practice
An EcoQO is developed according to a fixed protocol. The first
step is to draft a background document, defining the objective,
describing existing knowledge and monitoring information, and
proposing a suitable indicator and reference levels. Next, a target
(or limit) level is developed by scientists and adopted for testing
by policy-makers. During an evaluation phase, the EcoQO is
tested in practice and, if necessary, adjusted. Only after the test
has been passed, might OSPAR decide to apply the EcoQO.
Communication tools to inform stakeholders and politicians
Most EcoQOs have been designed to explain the ecosystem
approach to stakeholders and politicians in a relatively simple
and attractive way. During meetings to inform stakeholders
about progress, at both national and international levels, we
learned that explaining ecological objectives is essential, yet
difficult to accomplish.
Slow start, scientific and operational difficulties
EcoQO development has been a bottom – up process, started by a
few dedicated scientists and guided only by the high-level strategic
objectives of the OSPAR Convention. The scientific debate took
many years, partly owing to the complexity inherent in marine
indicators and partly to a lack of guiding principles. Progress
has been further hampered by operational difficulties, such as a
lack of harmonized monitoring data and limited capacity in
North Sea countries to assist the process. The focus on
eyecatching species has led to underrepresentation of ecosystem
elements of equal functional importance.
Many organizations involved
The coordination of many biological monitoring programmes in
the marine environment is still in its infancy, although European
directives (Birds and Habitats Directives, Water Framework
Directive, Marine Strategy Framework Directive) and other
international agreements call for a rapid development of their
integrated use. Investigations
biological monitoring is carried out by a wide range of institutions,
and contracting parties are currently acknowledging the need for
better coordination to develop more efficient and cost-effective
No success in the short term
Regardless of which framework is developed, any improvement of
the marine environment in response to management measures,
i.e. the political gains, may take decades, whereas investments in
capacity and resources have to be made in the short term.
Lack of commitment
North Sea countries have hesitated to contribute to EcoQO
development, because personnel and budgets for environmental
monitoring and assessment are limited, and demands, especially
those made by European directives, are high. The 2008 and 2009
evaluations will inform contracting parties on practical and
financial consequences, providing a basis for informed
decisionmaking, and it is to be hoped, increasing commitment.
OSPAR followed a pragmatic approach, choosing indicators that
were already monitored by most North Sea countries and, where
possible, objectives that had already been accepted by OSPAR or
otherwise agreed internationally (e.g. the European Common
Fisheries Policy and the Agreement on the Conservation of
Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas). Although this
enhanced their acceptability to policy-makers, less attention was
given to more basic criteria for selecting specific indicators or
The present set of EcoQOs does not permit a fully integrated
assessment of the status of the marine environment. The MSFD
requests a more extensive set of operational indicators and
objectives that covers all generic descriptors of Good Environmental
Status by 2012. These generic descriptors address relatively new
topics such as underwater noise and non-indigenous species.
Therefore, indicator development in Europe should be switched
into high gear, focusing on the main human impacts and the
most important ecosystem elements. Active involvement of
marine research institutes and ICES is needed to build
scientifically sound and coherent indicator sets. Existing frameworks,
such as the EcoQOs of OSPAR, HELCOM, and other regional
conventions, should be integrated where possible and adapted to fit
this new directive. Using concepts and operational experience
gained from these existing frameworks may save years of
EC. 2005 . Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a Framework for Community Action in the field of Marine Environmental Policy (Marine Strategy Directive) . Commission of the European Community Document , COM ( 2005 ) 505 .
EEA. 2001 . Livestock and Environment Toolbox. Pressure-StateResponse Framework and Environmental Indicators. www.virtual centre .org/en/dec/toolbox/Refer/EnvIndi.htm.
EU. 2008 . Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008, establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy (Marine Strategy Framework Directive) . http://eur-lex.europa.eu/ LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L: 2008 : 164 : 0019 :0040:EN:PDF.
ICES. 2001 . Report of the ICES Advisory Committee on Ecosystems , 2001 . ICES Cooperative Research Report , 249 . 75 pp.
ICES. 2003 . Report of the ICES Advisory Committee on Ecosystems , 2003 . ICES Cooperative Research Report , 262 . 241 pp.
ICES. 2004 . Report of the ICES Advisory Committee on Fishery Management and Advisory Committee on Ecosystems , 2004 . ICES Advice, 1 ( 2 ).
IMM. 1997 . Statement of Conclusions from the Intermediate Ministerial Meeting on the Integration of Fisheries and Environmental Issues , Bergen, Norway, 13 - 14 March 1997 . www.seas-at-risk . org/n2_archive.php?page=9.
JMM. 2003 . Record of the First Joint Ministerial Meeting of the Helsinki and OSPAR Commissions. Annex 5. Statement on the Ecosystem Approach to the Management of Human Activities , Bremen, Germany, 25 - 26 June 2003. www.ospar.org.
Johnson , D. 2008 . Environmental indicators: their utility in meeting the OSPAR Convention's regulatory needs . ICES Journal of Marine Science , 65 : 1387 - 1391 .
NSC. 2002. Bergen Declaration . Fifth International Conference on the Protection of the North Sea, Bergen, Norway , 20 - 21 March 2002 .
OSPAR. 1998 . The Protection and Conservation of the Ecosystems and Biological Diversity of the Maritime Area . Reference Number 1998 - 15 .1.
OSPAR. 2002 . Summary Record of the Meeting of the OSPAR Commission , Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 24 - 28 June 2002. www.ospar.org.
OSPAR. 2006 . Report on North Sea pilot project on Ecological Quality Objectives. OSPAR Biodiversity Series 2006 /239. 126 pp.
OSPAR. 2007 . EcoQO Handbook-Handbook for the Application of Ecological Quality Objectives in the North Sea, 1st edn . OSPAR Biodiversity Series 2007 /307. 39 pp.
OSPAR. 2008 . Marine Biodiversity Monitoring and Assessment: activities to improve synergies between EU directives and international conventions . OSPAR Monitoring and Assessment Series , 2008 /357. 65 pp.