Article Index

The mission approach, which the European institutions have taken, is intended to meet major societal challenges by facilitating the mobilisation of many actors doing transdisciplinary work and combining a wide range of funding instruments from European to local levels. The second Mission Forum on 5 March, opened by mission board chair Pascal Lamy, showcased that beyond wonderful aspirations, real action and highlights on change was on the agenda. The entire week was packed with presentations and networking with a strong presence of engaged women leaders not shy to go where it mattered. Here are some impressions from the events.

Lamy took great pains to focus the attention of the audience to implementation of concrete measures to restore the ocean and rivers. He explained that four years ago the planning had started in earnest. Last year's mission forum was still largely aspirational because the first projects were only just becoming operational. But now the legislative framework was in place with the Nature Restoration Law voted by the European Parliament as the most recent element to put Europe on a path to restore 20% of degraded ecosystems by 2030 as an insurance policy for the future in times of disruptive climate change, mass extinctions and more. A large number of projects and initiatives were now underway, leveraging additional financial means and more 'than the usual suspects', as he put it.

Speaker followed after speaker doing their best, supported by the contagiously enthusiastic moderator Katrina Sichel. Interspersed Slido questions to the audience regularly invited participant feedback to every step of the agenda.


The first 'operational session' was titled 'Restoring marine and freshwater ecosystems' featured speakers responsible for implementing solutions in the Mission’s lighthouses from Charter actions and inviting the audience to comment and ask question through Slido. It was followed swiftly by a panel focused on removing or preventing marine pollution at different scales.

Two long-standing efforts were recognised with the European MPA Award, Torre Guaceto nature reserve near Brindisi in Apuglia, Italy, and the marine protected area Côte agathoise on the French Mediterranean coast.

The afternoon sessions focused mostly on opportunities to transition towards a circular economy though most of that is still very much in its infancy. Several speakers insisted on the need to cluster and speed up initiatives to meet the targets.


The session on knowledge systems gave glimpses on how citizens could be engaged in a range of initiatives to stimulate integrated solutions, which go beyond environmental concerns, and also address social and economic issues. The experience is that narrow approaches have limited traction and sub-optimal results. It is also true that with total fishery production in European waters halved from about 7 million tons in 2017 to half that in 2021 there is no room for complacency. Restoration needs to be stepped up drastically to maintain consumption of healthy food from the seas as Europe can not assume to cover its growing deficit from other parts of the global ocean indefinitely.

The last panel session 'Mission Ocean and Waters in action' paid attention to engaging young people and provided a whistle stop tour through the coordination and support to the four regional lighthouse initiatives, Mediterranean, Baltic-North Sea, Atlantic-Arctic, and Danube. Cécile Nys of the PREP4BLUE project illustrated the mechanisms of horizontal coordination and support to the Mission.

It then fell to John Bell, Deputy Mission Manager and Director of Healthy Planet, DG Research and Innovation, European Commission, to offer closing remarks and encourage everybody to look ahead to a ground swell of mission implementation that would survive the change of guard both in the European Parliament with the June 2024 elections and a new Commission to take office in October this year.

What was the overall appreciation on Slido of the day? The moment of truth from almost 100 participants expressing their appreciation showed it was overall a worthwhile exercise.

The official website can be accessed here.

A few more pictures from the mission photographer below:


Where next for Europe's seas, 6 March 2024

Charlina Vitcheva, Director General of DG MARE of the European Commission hosted this day of reflection about possible and desirable futures. In the light of the forthcoming new political cycle, whatever the composition of the European Parliament and the Commission, the new incumbants will have to deal with the triple crisis of biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change. One can add as a fourth challenge to develop inclusive and socially equitable solutions.

Manuel Barange, Deputy Director General Fisheries of the FAO, gave a keynote summarising the broad global picture. He deplored the rebound of hunger, currently affecting more than 700 million people across the globe. While production of wild seafood and aquaculture products now enabled a nominal 20.2 kg of fish and seafood per person and year, African countries achieved only about half that. If the continent were to achieve the current level of nutritional value from fish an increase of 284% would be required by the year 2050.

Aquaculture consisted mostly of freshwater fish relatively low in the foodweb, such as carps, which made up 62.2% of the global total  But sustainability remained a concern in aquaculture, especially of carnivorous species, such as salmon.

This year, when the Voluntary Guidelines for Ensuring Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries celebrate their 10-year anniversary, one can not overemphasise their importance for livelihoods, food security, jobs and maritime cultures. One has to keep in mind that trade in fishery products is the biggest source of income for many low and middle-income countries (LMIC).

Mainstreaming biodiversity conservation, ocean restoration and the global objectives to end hunger must top the political and operational agendas.

In her response Charlina Vitcheva flagged that with increasing tensions across the world. In addition the goal posts in maritime affairs were made to move. By way of example she mentioned: the US and other countries extending their continental shelf area significantly, Norway starting deep sea mining despite its role as chair of the Ocean Panel of countries intent to increase ocean protection and sustainable use, China deploying its formidable distance fleet not only in West Africa and along the South American coast. Europe had its own tensions and was struggling to remain a stable international partner to move forward on the essential restoration agenda. She argued that more attention needed to be paid to the social and economic dimensions, including an ageing population in general and difficulties to attract young people e.g. into fisheries when resources were declining. In addition, competition for space of many different activities were not making the management of Exclusive Economic Zones any easier.

In order to reflect about these and other challenges, four thematic discussion sessions in smaller groups were scheduled and worked on the same probing questions. The themes were:

- global drivers
- economy
- society
- innovation.

All participants were assigned to a group with different participants to cover each theme and bring forward the major take-home messages to future planning. The rapporteurs and moderators of each group then brough these key points together and four principal rapporteurs shared the synthesis of each theme in plenary.

In literally all themes the need for citizen engagement and promoting inclusive approaches emerged as a red thread flanked by more specifics for each topic and region across Europe. More than 100 people participated in the group discussions and contributed their experiences and insights.

The Commission promises to document the process and make a summary available after the meeting.


Workshop on Blue Parks, 7 March 2024

Andrea Strachinescu-Olteanu of DG MARE, European Commssion opened the workshop reminding participants that the current Commission was very interested in marine protected areas (MPAs) as a means to help restore the battered ocean. So long as Horizon Europe, the large research framework programme was running, there would be funding to this goal. It was important to show results to increase chances that these commitments would be sustained by future decision makers and programmes.

Gregory Fuchs of the MIP Ocean platform recalled some of the conclusions of a preparatory workshop in December 2023. Despite having declared 12% of European waters as protected, less than one % were effectively so, the other 11% or so were mere paper parks. It was important to stand together for changing this in order to make sure the societal benefits of truly functioning marine parks would become to decision makers and ordinary citizens alike, working on the identified levers.

Alberto Zocchi of CINEA, the executive agency for many projects contributing to Mission 'Restore our Ocean and Rivers' established in 2021, provided an overview. He helped participants focused on the action to navigate a few key policy objectives and the major implementation tools. According to the EU Biodiversity Strategy adopted in support of the UN Agenda 2030 with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Aichi targets under the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) and the recently adopted Global Biodiversity Framework 30% of European lands and seas should be protected by 2030. Of these, 10% should be strictly protected.

Five missions had been negotiated to addres major societal objectives and using all kinds of implementation mechanisms from European to local levels. The mission 'Restore European Ocean and Waters by 2030' was one of the five. In four major sub-regions lighthouses were sites to pilot and demonstrate possible solutions for restoring badly degraded ecosystems in a socially and economically sustainable manner. Among the major funding instruments figured the Horizon Europe research and innovation framework programme, LIFE, the EU's funding instrument for the environment and climate action programme, and EMFAF, the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund supporting the Common Fisheries Policy. An assessment report of some 800 projects funded during the period 2013 to 2023 allowed to identify gaps and should help to direct resources and activities accordingly.

With the scene set like this, most of the remaining day was spent on learning from project leaders how they were approaching the restoration mandate and what experiences they had gathered so far. A recurrent concern was that for restoration to have a chance, the excessive pressures needed to be reduced that had led to the environmental degradation in social and economic problems in its wake. As one speaker remarked: when the house is burning, you can not rebuild it, you first need to extinguish the fire. Among the many interesting reports, we can mention only a few and need to take their preliminary findings with a pinch of salt as most projects were not even half way through their programme.

Jannica Haldin, project coordinator at HELCOM, the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission based in Helsinki, Finland, was seven months into her stint of 7 years. She was already reeling under the multiple layers of mismatching national rules, local interests and continuously increasing pressures on the environment. These pressures were primarily unbridled agricultural run-off increasing dead zones, excessive fishing leading to collapses e.g. of Western Baltic cod and herring populations, poisoning from rusting containers of WWII ammunition, ghost nets on ship wrecks and more. Tourism had increased by 40% in the last decade, but could become even more significant, if the environment was in a better state. In her contagiously friendly and energetic way, she highlighted that it was most promising to woth with those who had most to gain directly from a healthy Baltic and would be willing to support legislation that would enforce measures reducing harm. Her key message was: it is best to do many simple things so that benefits become visible and thus get more people and organisations to engage.

Lorenzo Bramanti of LECOB-CNRS in France argued for more science in decision-making to enhance cost-effectiveness. He illustrated the point with an example about increasingly popular artificial reefs both to restore habitats destroyed by heavy bottom trawling and in other areas as habitat diversification for marine species. They were most effective if placed in areas with currents, the highways of larval and plankton transport. Careful siting of protection should focus on functional ecosystem units, not isolated species, even if such iconic species might help communication with the public. He cautioned that oversimplification for expediency in communication with citizens or politicians could backfire. It was important to accept and embrace complexity and time for recovery as key features of ecosystems to regain robustness. In brief, marine conservation and recovery were to be based on science-based protocols with a focus on securing benefits for citizens to ensure social consensus and support.

Vedran Nikolić of the Nature Conservation Unit in Directorate General Environment of the European Commission is a veteran of negotiations at different levels, in Europe and globally, around the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). He noted the large implementation gap between ambitions in the treaties and the ground realities. Failed implementation made species first become very rare and then go extinct. He recognised that it takes time to engage citizens, but that it was imperative to speed such engagement up significantly. In Europe some 6000 marine protected areas (MPAs) were declared, half of them Natura 2000 sites, but their current state and management effectiveness were not systematically assessed. With no outcome indicators nobody had a good overview.

He also insisted that it was essential to reduce human pressures not only in protected areas, but also beyond the 30% supposed to become protected under international and regional agreements. These not formally protected areas needed to be managed for sustainability and not being mined, if the overall results were to be achieved. He was unwavering in this expectation that the new European nature restoration law had the hallmarks of a game changer, even after some watering down in the last steps through the European Parliament and negotiations with the EU Member States. His final affirmation was an encouragement to do more and reap the benefits: reduce pressures on nature and you'll see some early recovery signs.

In discussions during breaks Mundus maris drew attention to a new role play on how to make a potentially contested Marine Protected Area work in a fictitious country. Such a role play is the main assignment of our current intern, Monica Facci, a master student in environmental humanities at Cà Foscari University in Venice. Taking advantage of the experience in the audience and through interviews with different stakeholders, she will develop the material for the characters that young adults in schools or universities can impersonate to gain some knowledge about protecting biodiversity and different positions vis-à-vis MPAs. Equally important is also the emotional exposure during a moderated respectful deliberation to develop a social consensus. After testing, the material will be available to those wanting e.g. to perform the role play for World Ocean Day, 8 June or any other occasion. Contact info[a]

Several speakers illustrated that overlapping sectoral legislation represented formidable obstacles to more integrated rules which could strike a better balance for people and nature between costs and benefits. From all regions across Europe speakers brought similar messages and experiences: engage with municipalities, fishers, ordinary citizens, with all those who are affected by ocean health. Knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient. We need engagement of hearts and minds. Start with stopping or reducing pressures, find solutions to restore local habitats, show the benefits of a healthy environment.

Emanuel Goncalves, Chief Scientist, Executive member of the Board, Oceano Azul Foundation, made a forceful point about the need to modify Art 11 of the Common Fisheries Policy as practice had shown the extreme difficulty or even impossibility to take protective measues under environmental law if another EU Member State had fishing interests in the same area. He affirmed that we had to face the existential crises of biodiversity loss and climate change so that further foot dragging was not an option and asked for accelerated transformation as we simply did not have another 40 years for protecting another few percent of the ocean as we had in the past. 

At the end of a stimulating day, Elisabetta Balzi, Head of the Unit Ocean and Waters of the European Commission's DG Research and Innovation, announced that more opportunities were coming to practise what was learnt during the exchanges: the next call for proposals will focus on blue protected areas and how to make them work.



Ocean Literacy for all, 8 March 2024

What a nice start with an impromptu performance of stand up comedians appropriately calling their compagnie 'Improbably Performance'. They acted out the often absurd and contradictory 'arguments' and opinions one may find on some social media channels as if they wanted to ask the audience: 'are you well prepared and informed or at risk to fall for some cleverly presented humbug?' Most importantly, their seemingly light-hearted stunts also invited to have some fun and not become depressed by the increasingly dramatic reports about the state of the marine environment and the drivers and effects of climate change. Humor, after all, is a good protection against defeatism and a good laugh gives us all energy to find new answers to the challenges.

Charlina Vitcheva, Director General of DG MARE, then spoke with a panel discussion with young ocean advocate women: Rada Pandeva of the Thalassophile Project, Stavrina Neokleus of Surfrider Europe and Leitizia Artioli of the Venice Climate Change Pavilion. Unfortunately all panelists delivered some too well rehearsed statements, which would have had greater power with a little more spontaneousness. That did not reduce the pertinence of the messages, however.

Session 1 on Ocean Literacy as a precondition for a sustainable blue economy asked questions about key conditions that can help deliver a sustainable blue economy, building on experience in strengthening ocean literacy and blue skills. The blue economy is, of course, a much used and abused term sometimes highjacket to justify infrastructures that destroy more nature than they are helpful to protect or even restore. To set the scene, Evelyn Paredes Coral of Ghent University presented key results from a study about skills and attitudes in maritime professions. Knowledge matters to land a job. In the interviews the researchers had explored attitudes towards ocean sustainability, what would be considered legitimate use of the ocean, and practice of ocean-friendly behaviours possibly based on personal interest in the ocean. The study results clearly showed that knowledge about the ocean was not sufficient to trigger positive attitudes. This was echoed by other panelists, who also showed that companies need to promote soft skills together with hard skills in their employees, that 'green' skills and capacity to cooperate needed to be actively sought. Farhat-Un-Nisá Bajwa, Centro de Investigação Marinha e Ambiental, also highlighted that cooperation across sectors, not only within narrow technical bounds was nessary. Ruben Eiras, Secretary-General of Fórum Oceano, believed that especially small-scale fishers already had to have a lot of interdisciplinary knowledge and should therefore play an important role in shaping the future.


The next session focused on bringing the ocean to the classroom. Francesca Santoro of IOC/UNESCO was particularly eloquent in arguing in favour of promoting not only ocean knowledge but also emotions, humanist values, positive attitudes, civic engagement and leadership skills. Others agreed and added that it was important to work with municipalities often in charge of primary schools and to support teachers. All agreed that teaching across classical subject matters would be desirable for best results. It could also at least begin to address the most common challenges, such as lack of time and funding and other constraints related to the structure of the curriculum. Melita Mokos, Assistant Professor of the University Zadar also reminded the audience that while a lot of teaching aids were available in English this was not at all the case in many other languages and that teachers often lacked practical training in such other languages.

The two afternoon sessions gave room to a discussion among artists, media, and influencers on how to best engage citizens and young people in ocean literacy. They rolled out a number of examples to illustrate what made an engaging story. Key ingredients would mostly be good facts well told so that a human fate would get a face and not disappear in cold statistical numbers.

Civil society movements in the streets, in social media, on the ground, such as the campaign to stop the trade in shark fins with more than one million signatures endorsing the petition. The campaign against deep sea mining had contributed to the vote in the European Parliament for a moratorium. The combined efforts of many nature conservation organisations disseminating the latest research on the harmfulness of bottom trawling for the marine environment and the climate had certainly influenced the recent decision to forbid bottom trawling in marine protected areas under the EU Habitat Directive.

The other panel session was more forward-looking bringing together the ideas of children, young people, citizens and the audience, wishes/pledges from #MakeEUBlue net, outcomes of other European Ocean Days events as well as the visions of the EU Mission Ocean & Waters and the UN Decade of Ocean Science. There is no shortage of ideas, conventional and non. The emphasis needs to shift to living out more of these ideas in daily lives, in schools, art events, public and private institutions, in laboratories and in the streets.

The ocean literacy islands in the first floor offered many more examples of good initiatives to emulate and collaborate with (see photos to the right). This was a day to charge the batteries and continue working with fresh energy.

All photos of Mundus maris asbl unless indicated otherwise. If you want more photos and the recordings of the panels of the day, click here.