Local and regional leaders have thrown their backing behind the European Union's wish to clear the sea of plastic, but, in recommendations adopted on 12 July at the European Committee of the Regions, they also urge the EU to embrace additional ambitious measures – ranging from tackling waste dumped at sea to protected zones – intended to clean and revive the oceans.
The problems of litter and pollution are at the heart of detailed commentary by the EU's assembly of local and regional politicians on 14 action points identified by the European Commission on international ocean governance. The opinion, which was drafted by Scottish member Cllr Tony Buchanan (UK/European Alliance), Leader of East Renfrewshire , suggests that the EU may need to offer incentives to other countries if it is to address the over-arching problems of fragmented responsibility in many areas and a lack of responsibility – the "tragedy of the commons" – in other areas of the oceans.
Mr Buchanan said: "There are some signs that people across the EU and the globe are waking up to the profound problem of plastic and other waste in our seas and oceans, but we need to leap to action immediately and to make this a priority. This is a task for everyone, but local and regional authorities have a particular role in preventing and managing waste. So, local and regional politicians have special responsibilities. But we also need greater recognition of our right to a say on ocean issues. Ocean management – often mismanagement – and industrial and environmental decisions are overwhelmingly in the hands of national governments and international organisations, but the effects – such as pollution and depleted sea life – are felt first in coastal communities."
While the opinion highlights the impact of plastic waste – from bottles to micro-plastics, tiny beads of plastics used in many everyday consumer products – it also throws a spotlight on a range of commonly ignored waste products dumped at say, calling for the EU to adopt a "joint plan for the eventual removal of substances at sea such as munitions, chemicals and nuclear materials".
Cllr Buchanan added: "Sub-national authorities often have competences directly related to ocean issues, particularly planning, environmental management and prevention (e.g. plastics), as well as subsidies for economic development including fisheries management. The actions of European local and regional authorities can have an impact on the other side of the ocean and vice versa. Therefore, ocean-governance proposals need to factor in this sub-national dimension, through, for example, Territorial Impact Assessments (as encouraged by the European Commission's new 'better regulation' agenda), specific funds for economic development, and ocean research.”
The opinion, which is the result of widespread consultation of local and regional authorities, research and organisations, cautions against ocean mining because its environmental consequences are untested. It also calls for the pooling and coordination of existing ocean-knowledge databases and of national and EU marine and rescue-and-enforcement resources.
Members of the European Committee of the Regions, which has a consultative role in the EU's decision-making, backed the extension of "ocean parks" as a means of protecting marine life, voted in favour of imposing fees for waste generated by ships, and endorsed a ban on "new" exploration for oil in "sensitive areas".
The opinion emphasises that clean-up measures and ocean parks would benefit not just traditional marine industries, such as fishing, but would also promote tourism, as studies from Australia have demonstrated.
Cllr Buchanan won support for proposals to step up ocean research, to address problems such as misuse and neglect and to identify ways in which seas and oceans could be exploited in a sustainable fashion. This would involve a substantial increase in the funding that the EU makes available to marine researchers through the Horizon 2020 programme. The future of Horizon 2020 was the subject of a separate opinion adopted by the CoR on 12 July. Another set of recommendations made by the CoR on 12 July – on sustainable development – makes specific reference to the need for environmentally friendly use of the world's oceans and seas.