European environmental management: Moving to an ecosystem approach



The European Union has adopted several environmental directives, strategies, recommendations, and agreements that require a shift from local- or regional-based regulations to more ecosystem-based, holistic environmental management. Over the next decade, environmental management in Europe is likely to focus more on biological and ecological conditions rather than physical and chemical conditions, with ecosystem health at the center of regulation and management decision making. Successful implementation of this new ecosystem management and strategic assessment process in Europe will require the integration of regulatory and technical information and extensive collaboration from among European Union member countries, between agencies, and across disciplines to an unprecedented degree. It will also require extensive efforts to adapt current systems of environmental assessment and management to the basin and ecosystem level, across media and habitats, and considering a much broader set of impacts on ecosystem status than is currently addressed in most risk assessments. This will require the understanding, integration, and communication of economic, ecological, hydrological, and other processes across many spatial and temporal scales. This article discusses these challenges and describes some of the research initiatives that will help achieve integrated ecosystem management in Europe.


The European Union (EU) has adopted several directives, strategies, recommendations, and agreements that require a movement from sectoral-based to more ecosystem-based, holistic environmental management (e.g., Ducrotoy and Elliott 1997; Elliott et al. 1999; Read et al. 2001; Apitz et al. 2005; Borja 2005). This brief communication discusses some of the current and emerging new European regulations and strategies and their implications for ecosystem management. We describe some of the research initiatives that will help fill information gaps that will likely emerge during the shift to a more biological and ecological focus. We conclude with recommendations for further research to meet the goal of integrated ecosystem management in Europe.


The implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD; COM 2000b) is changing the scope of water management from the local scale to basin (watershed or catchment) scale (often transboundary). It aims to establish a framework for the protection of groundwaters and inland, transitional (i.e., fjords, estuaries, rias, and lagoons) and coastal surface waters that prevents habitat deterioration and protects and enhances the status of aquatic ecosystems, as well as the terrestrial ecosystems and wetlands linked to them.

The WFD approach encompasses measures of ecological, hydrological, and hydrogeological systems, including targets reflecting the ecological integrity of the water body. It places an emphasis on ecological status, which it defines as “quality of the structure and functioning of aquatic ecosystems associated with surface waters,” taking into account “the physico-chemical nature of the water and sediment, the flow characteristics of the water and the physical structure of the water body,” but it concentrates on the condition of the biological elements of the ecosystem (COM 2000b). By 2015, Europe aims to achieve good ecological status (GES) for its waters, measured against a reference derived from the natural, unmodified conditions for that water body type.

The use in the WFD of unmodified conditions as a benchmark for water bodies has significant implications in heavily populated and industrialized parts of Europe. With the pragmatic view that certain areas will have to remain degraded or unnatural as the result of a developed landscape, water bodies that meet the strict criteria for designation as heavily modified water bodies or artificial water bodies, will only be required to have a good ecological potential (GEP) rather than GES (Hull et al. 2004). The GEP allows for morphological and ecological impacts of the physical modifications required by the continued use of the water body (e.g., for flood defense, abstraction, navigation, aqua-culture, fisheries, waterside development, etc.), but the degree to which these allowances will differ from the objectives for natural water bodies is subject to debate. Water bodies identified as being at risk of failing to meet good status (or potential) will be subject to monitoring, and measures will subsequently be considered to help protect and/or improve water status with the proviso that they must be technically feasible, cost effective, and not disproportionately costly (Brooke 2004).

The WFD requires member nations to develop river basin management plans (RBMPs) that are designed to deliver the WFD objective of good, or improving, ecological status in all water bodies. These RBMPs will need to consider many aspects of basin-scale management within the socioeconomic environment of the region, country, and continent, and all activities that might impact on the status of a water body. A wide range of pressures likely to lead to impacts have been identified, including nutrients, hazardous substances, organic enrichment, commercial fishing, abstraction or industrial intakes, alien species, and hydrological and geomorphological change (i.e., hydromorphological change). However, while methods for evaluating and/or managing the effects of hazardous substances are well established, if at times controversial, the way in which the impacts to GES from nonconventional pressures are assessed and managed is far from clear, as the science to establish links between, for example, morphological change and ecology is weak (Freeman 2005).

The EC Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC (HSD; COM 1992), adopted to implement the Global Biodiversity Convention, complements the 1979 EC Wild Birds Directive (Directive 79/409/EEC). The directive aims to conserve natural habitats and wild fauna and flora. The designation of special areas of conservation and special protected areas will create the Natura 2000 network of sites designed to conserve habitats and species of plants and animals that are rare, endangered, or vulnerable in the EU. Conservation will be defined as a series of measures required to maintain or to restore natural habitats and populations of species of wild fauna and flora. The conservation status of a species can be defined as “the sum of influences acting on the species concerned that may affect the long-term distribution and abundance of its population within the European territory of the Member States to which the treaty applies” (COM 1992). Thus, for urbanized and industrialized areas, it is axiomatic that poor sediment, water, and/or soil quality will affect the conservation status of listed species and habitats. As a corollary, if the appropriate environmental characteristics are maintained or protected, then the species will be protected.

In common with land and freshwater environmental management, there is a similar movement from a sectoral approach to an holistic, ecosystem approach to managing coastal and marine areas. There has also been a movement from addressing problems in isolation on land, in freshwaters, and in estuaries or the coastal zone to integrating these different areas and extending the ecosystem approach to entire shelf areas. As can be seen in Table 1, many of the ecosystem-based strategies discussed here span a few environments. It has been suggested, for example, that because of its nature and concepts, the HSD was originally devised for terrestrial systems and then later extended to fresh surface waters, estuaries, and the very nearshore zone. Similarly, the text and background to the WFD suggested that it, too, was 1st developed for freshwaters and then later extended to cover estuaries, the coast, and offshore to 1 nautical mile. Furthermore, there is overlap in many regions, with one or more ecosystem-based policies being of relevance in certain habitats.

The adoption of the EU Marine Strategy (COM 2002a) and the recent suggestion of the need for an accompanying Marine Framework Directive will take integrated ecosystem management philosophies from the terrestrial and freshwater areas through the estuaries and coasts to the open sea, including to offshore shelf (200 nm) areas (Table 1). The Integrated Coastal Zone Management Recommendation calls for the “… combination of instruments designed to facilitate coherence between sectoral policy objectives and coherence between planning and management” and “improved coordination of the actions taken by all the authorities concerned both at sea and on land, in managing the sea-land interaction” via a national stock-taking exercise, followed by the development of national strategies, international cooperation, reporting and review, ultimately leading to EC legislation on coastal zone management (COM 2002b). Sectoral directives to control, for example, the emission of dangerous substances (Directive 76/464/EEC and its daughter directives) or the health of shellfish for growth and consumption (Directives 79/923/EEC and 91/942/EEC), are being superseded by holistic directives such as the WFD (McLusky and Elliott 2004). Although the Oslo and Paris Commission was originally conceived to prevent pollution of the Northeast Atlantic by land and vessel-based sources, it has now expanded to include habitat and species protection (the Baltic and the Mediterranean are, respectively, covered by similar commissions Helsinki [HELCOM] and Barcelona).

Enshrined in the European Treaty are the precautionary principle and the principles that pollution should be rectified at the source, the polluter should pay, and priority should be given to preventative actions, all of which underpin current EU chemical-control policies. Thus, the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive (COM 1996) seeks to minimize pollution from point sources, and the new Environmental Liability Directive (ELD) holds polluters financially responsible for remediation of the effects of nonpermitted emissions that happen after its implementation on 30 April 2007 (COM 2004) to baseline (pre-emission conditions). However, the ELD directive does not address the effects of historical emissions or the effects of diffuse emissions from permitted activities. It is unclear how this will be applied in regions with a legacy of historical pollution, or how issues of secondary pollution, such as the release of historically contaminated sediments during dredging activities, will be addressed.

In 2001, the EC published a white paper ( to better regulate the manufacture and importation of chemicals. This process, called REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals), replaces over 40 existing directives and provides a single regulatory regime for the registration, evaluation, authorization, and if necessary, use with restriction of an estimated 30,000 new and existing chemicals, putting the burden of proof on the users and producers of chemicals. Similar to the WFD, although the environmental objectives are paramount, socioeconomic considerations will inform all decisions.

One of the concerns about REACH is that chemicals are brought under its remit based on substance tonnage rather than on human or environmental risk. It is argued that substances should instead be registered according to priority of risk, based on sound science. At present, a lack of data for some substances prevents a purely risk-based approach to chemical selection. A further concern is that the methods for the prediction of effects of chemicals are not based on cumulative effects of chemical mixtures in the environment but, instead, are based on prognostic assessments of chemical hazards as they are used and dispersed in the environment. For example, the allowed discharge consent limit (within a license, authorization, or permit) is usually derived either for the most hazardous (toxic or bioaccumulating) substances, in order to achieve eventual 0 emissions, or for the less hazardous substances based on the toxicity level of the chemical in isolation (albeit with a safety factor applied as an added precaution). Because of the inadequacies of this system, there has been some recent movement toward the use of Direct Toxicity Assessment and whole-effluent testing

Table Table 1.. The boxes containing an X indicate those water bodies in which the EU ecosystem-based directives, recommendations, and strategies have jurisdiction. As can be seen, there is overlap in some environments. Together, these policies will result in an ecosystem-based management of the environment from land to the open sea
 Environmental focus of the directive
Recent or emerging European environmental directivesaLandFreshwaterEstuariesbCoastalOpen sea
  1. aThe legislation referring to each directive is as follows: (1) Habitats Directive: COM (1992); (2) Water Framework Directive: COM (2000b); (3) Integrated Coastal Zone Management Recommendation: COM (2002b); (4) European Commission Marine Strategy: COM (2002a); (5) Marine Framework Directive: discussed, not yet developed or published. Although it is unclear how they will be implemented across ecosystems, the Integrated Pollution Control Directive (COM 1996); Environmental Liability Directive (COM 2004); the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive (COM 1985); and the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive (COM 2001b) will apply across environments.

  2. bIncludes all transitional (freshwater and saltwater) coastal waters.

  3. c? = some level of uncertainty regarding the impact to the environmental associated with implementation of the directive.

Habitats DirectiveXXXXApplicable only in the UK
Water Framework DirectiveXXX
Integrated Coastal Zone Management RecommendationX?cX
European Commission Marine StrategyX?XX
Proposed Marine Framework DirectiveX?X?X

Over the next decade, environmental management of all European water bodies will likely be based mainly on biological and ecological (rather than physicochemical) elements, with ecosystems at the center of management decisions (Borja 2005). An important part of achieving ecosystem management is the principle of integration embedded in the European Treaty, which requires all other policy areas to take full and proper consideration of the European Community's environmental objectives when making policy decisions (COM 2001a). Thus, the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive (COM 2001b) was developed to ensure that environmental consequences of certain plans and programs are identified and assessed during their preparation and before their adoption. In contrast with Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs; COM 1985), which are required to determine the consequences to proposed projects, the SEA Directive will require examination of the impacts of decisions above or below the project level. Although COM (2000a) states that “… every decision (to apply the precautionary principle) must be preceded by an examination of all the available scientific data and, if possible, a risk evaluation that is as objective and comprehensive as possible,” where scientific data are limited, there is concern that the high level of conservatism that may be applied in prognostic risk assessments (i.e., assessments that predict the potential effects of a chemical or action as required by REACH, EIAs, and SEAs) may result in overconservative risk (or hazard) estimates, unnecessarily barring the use of some chemicals, actions, and policies.

On the other hand, retrospective risk assessments (that evaluate the risks posed by extant releases or actions) can examine the actual effects of such pressures on ecosystems. COM (2000a) states that decisions and policies should be continuously evaluated in the light of emerging science and experience, and, where possible, rigorous science-based risk evaluation should take the place of the application of conservative safety factors. These concerns have led to the so-called Prague Declaration developed by the scientific community, which states that the legislation on the safe use of endocrine-disrupting chemicals is insufficient and that the absence of scientific cause-and-effect evidence should not delay political action (–0620praguedeclaration.htm).


Successful implementation of ecosystem management and strategic assessment will require integration to an unprecedented degree: integration of environmental objectives from the catchment basin to the coast and, ultimately, to European seas; the various water and land uses, including their functions and values; different skills and disciplines; previous and emerging legislation and policy into common and coherent frameworks; technical, socioeconomic, and legislative instruments; stakeholders in decision making; and the different decision-making levels, affecting ecosystem and water status and management among the EU member states (Borja 2005). This integration will require extensive collaboration and research to adapt current systems of environmental assessment and management to the basin and ecosystem level.

Effective and sustainable basin-scale management strategies must focus on the entire hydrological cycle rather than on 1 site or medium at a time. Therefore, an integrated, multistressor, multiuse/user, multimedia management approach should be developed that encompasses a decision-making hierarchy. This should aim at setting priorities at a basin scale followed by site-specific risk assessment at a local level and control of point and diffuse contaminant sources (Apitz et al. 2005) and other pressures (Landis 2005). A description and model, whether conceptual or quantitative, of the mass flow of water, contaminants, and particles within a river basin, or conceptual basin model (CBM; Apitz and White 2003), if thoughtfully developed, is a critical part of effective risk assessment for a particular site and for basin-scale management as a whole. Such a CBM should alsobeput in terms of the ecological receptors in aquatic ecosystems and in terms of other drivers of ecosystem impact (e.g., habitat loss, saline incursion, thermal change, sea-level rise, abstraction, and so on). If, by any process occurring within the river basin, contaminants, activities, or other pressures pose a risk to ecosystems or river functions at other sites, a control of that risk source is a vital part of an effective management plan of the overall basin.

Several European research initiatives address some aspects of these complex ecosystem management issues. For example, the SedNet project (the demand-driven European Sediment Research Network, aimed to develop guidance and key solutions for integrated, sustainable sediment management from a local to river basin scale in line with the requirements of the WFD. AquaTerra (, an environmental EC Framework Programme 6 (FP6) Integrated Project (IP), aims to improve river-basin management by providing a better understanding of the river-sediment-soil-groundwater system at various temporal and spatial scales; water- and soil-quality monitoring tools; integrated modeling for impact evaluation of pollution and climate and land-use changes; and the definition of long-term management schemes by addressing various aspects of basin-scale soil-sediment-contaminant-water interaction, transport, fate and impact, and how this will affect future policy, research, and practice. Models for Assessing and Forecasting the Impact of Environmental Key Pollutants on Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems and Biodiversity (MODELKEY;, a complimentary environmental IP, aims to develop interlinked predictive modeling tools and state-of-the-art effect-assessment and analytical methods for European freshwater and marine ecosystems by developing the science and modeling base to help address the risk of both priority and emerging pollutants. MODELKEY partners are developing sublethal in vitro and in vivo bioassays and addressing the cause-effect relationships between pollution and biodiversity, as well as developing new risk assessment and decision support systems to integrate and transfer these results.

The newly funded FP6 Fast Advanced Cellular and Ecosystem Information project (FACEiT, project specifically targets the integration of novel, state-of-the-art technologies, such as microbial reporter platforms, biosensors, and microarrays, into the risk-assessment framework to analyze the magnitude and nature of marine pollution disasters, as well as the potential effects on aquatic organisms and the consequences for ecosystems diversity and function. The Water, Environment, Landscape Management at Contaminated Megasites ( project seeks to provide an holistic approach to the complexities of often basin-scale megasite management by developing and testing an Integrated Management System. And last but not least, the Ecosystem management bioindicators (ECOMAN) program (; Galloway et al. 2004a) aims to validate and implement the use of a suite of biological-effect parameters as a cost-effective risk-screening tool, which will be used within existing regulatory frameworks such as the WFD for the primary assessment of anthropogenic impact, to enhance the certainty of risk assessment classifications, and to establish causes and effects of pollution.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, these and other projects are addressing many aspects of integrated ecosystem management and will ultimately contribute significantly to how this goal is achieved in Europe. However, the major stated focus of all these initiatives is on the effects of chemical contaminants on aquatic systems. Projects such as European Lifestyles for the Marine Environment, (, MARE (a Swedish program investigating eutrophication in the Baltic Sea), NEST (a decision support system;, and EUROTROPH (examining nutrient cycling and the trophic status of coastal ecosystems ( aim to bring together the natural and socioeconomic sciences using an ecosystems approach. However, a broader focus on the way in which other pressures affect various aquatic ecosystems will require new initiatives.

There is a need to develop and harmonize efficient and effective quality-assured monitoring practices and to develop SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-limited) indicators and targets. Hence, procedures and frameworks such as the Biological Effects Quality Assurance in Monitoring Programmes (, initiated in 1998) aim to ensure that laboratories contributing to national and international marine monitoring programs can attain defined quality standards. As member nations develop various indicators of ecological quality, similar programs must be developed to validate these measures.

Notwithstanding the ambitions or expectations of the WFD, the impacts of centuries of human activities will not be eradicated (e.g., Malakoff 1997; Jackson et al. 2001), and the need for continuing sustainable development will remain (Sala et al. 2000). Thus, there is clearly a need for the development of ecological measures and technology that can evaluate the environmental status of aquatic ecosystems, and the potential impacts of both proposed developments and measures carried out to mitigate the impacts of past and projected activities (see, for example, Diaz et al. 2004). To be effective, however, new initiatives and technologies will need to apply realistic conceptual models that are applicable, irrespective of habitat status, and sufficiently sensitive to detect deleterious ecosystem change at a functional level (Diaz et al. 2004).

Although the value of aquatic ecosystems and the services that they supply is considerable (e.g., Costanza et al. 1997; Chee 2004), it is likely that, in many cases, considerations of overriding benefit and disproportionate cost will result in the licensing of activities and developments, in spite of their potential to damage the ecological status of the water body. In such cases, the impact of habitat loss may be minimized via either mitigation (the act of making impacts less severe) or compensation (the act of compensating for economic, resource, or ecological loss via a payment or, in the latter cases, improvement, elsewhere). However, whether due to mitigation or compensation, habitats in different times, locations, and/or conditions will differ in nature and function from those that existed in the past. By creating, restoring, or recreating habitats, the overall aim should be sustainable and long-term preservation of ecosystem integrity. Elliott and Cutts (2004) suggest that this implies the maintenance or improvement of an ecosystem's function or carrying capacity. Sorensen et al. (2004) suggest the creation of new habitat, which they term compensatory restoration, can result in a net increase of ecological services; i.e., the processes and goods provided by ecosystems and their component species that ultimately affect human well being.

By adopting this definition, however, the concept of the ecosystem is broadened. In addition to the direct provision of goods such as food, drinking water, and pharmaceuticals, ecosystems also provide the purification of air, sediments, and water; breeding grounds for local and migratory species; biological control of pest species; stabilization of climate; mitigation of flood and drought; and many cultural values, such as recreational and inspirational values. While most ecologists individually have a good idea of what ecological services and carrying capacity are, the science in support of their definition and measurement is often limited (e.g., Covich et al. 2004), dependent on current knowledge and trends in their field of research (Raffaelli et al. 2003), and thus must be refined within a wider context if this concept is to inform management decisions (Elliott and Lawrence 1998; Elliott and Cutts 2004).

Population growth and global change will increasingly impact marine and terrestrial ecosystems in undetermined ways. What is certain, however, is that, as a significant proportion of the human population within Europe live adjacent to waterways, estuaries, and coastal areas, aquatic systems as a whole are particularly vulnerable to disturbance. Thus, European management is starting to concentrate less on pollution per se and more on the combined affects of multiple stressors at the ecosystem level with a view to ensuring their protection, restoration, and long-term viability. While chemical pollution is increasingly controlled in industrialized Europe, issues of habitat loss are increasing in importance. Elliott and Cutts (2004) propose that much of this habitat loss can be viewed in terms of physical pollution, analogous to the chemical and biological pollution that is more commonly addressed. However, whereas chemical pollution is (arguably) soluble, given a developed technology and finance, and there are more or less standard methods of assessment (e.g., Apitz et al. 2005a, 2005b), less is known about how to correctly assess and manage the impacts of habitat loss and other disturbances on the integrity and carrying capacity of the system (Elliott and Cutts 2004).

Addressing risk at the basin and ecosystem scale, as demanded by the WFD and related directives, requires an understanding of economic, ecological, hydrological, and other processes across many spatial and temporal scales. However, at present, there is a poor understanding, for example, of how aquatic ecosystems function to accurately assess ecosystem health on a site-specific basis (Germano 2001). Adding several layers of complexity and scale will further complicate this problem. Ecological assessment needs to move away from applying simple statistical methods (see, for example, critique in Diaz et al. 2004) that do not allow for full analysis of complex systems toward an approach more analogous to that of medical diagnostics (Germano 2001; Elliott and Cutts 2004; Galloway et al. 2004b). Implicit in the drive toward holistic assessment is the concept that, to have healthy ecosystems, the constituent biota must, in the main, be healthy. This ideal has been greatly aided by recent rapid advances in diagnostic molecular technologies that make it possible to conduct health assessments of individual organisms in much the same way that we evaluate human health (Depledge and Galloway 2005).

It has been stated that “the identification of minor changes due to anthropogenic activities against the background of largescale natural changes will remain difficult, and at the opposite end, the quality of greatly modified areas also will be difficult to assess” (Read et al. 2001). Ecosystem management requires the assessment and definition of baseline conditions so that we can distinguish between the effects of natural and manmade factors (Lewis 1999; DEFRA 2004), and properly assess liability and sources of stresses. Furthermore, as the science to establish links between morphological change and ecology is weak, much more work is required to establish causality (Freeman 2005). The EU FP6-funded Coastal Ocean Benthic Observatories ( program integrates in situ observational and experimental systems to monitor marine benthic habitats in order to understand how anthropogenic impacts affect benthic ecosystem functioning in support, among other things, of the development of biogeochemical measures to assist in the characterization of ecological function, status, and potential in coastal benthic ecosystems. There is a need for similar experimental systems in various aquatic habitats to provide better scientific understanding of mechanisms linking anthropogenic activities and the biological communities that may be the focus of protection, at various spatial, temporal, trophic, and organizational scales (Levin 1992; Apitz et al. 2005b).

For successful, but pragmatic, environmental management to be achieved, 6 tenets must be fulfilled: actions should be environmentally sustainable, economically viable, technologically feasible, legislatively permissible, administratively achievable, and last, socially desirable and/or tolerable (Elliott and Cutts 2004). In the present climate, a 7th tenet may be added-that the actions will be politically expedient. Examination of these 7 tenets reveals that the focus of these requirements is on societal perceptions, wishes, and needs. Thus, while this article has identified the scientific and technical needs necessary to support basin-scale ecosystem management, the success of this more holistic approach to environmental management will depend greatly on how effectively scientists, regulators, stakeholders, and society in general communicate. Thus, a final research need is the development of decision and communication tools that link this complex science to the needs of society.


The authors thank Jos Brils, Jan Brooks, Josephine A. Hagger, Martin Solan, and Sue White for their helpful discussions and information. SEA acknowledges the 6th Framework Programme for Global Change and Ecosystems ( project “Integrating new technologies for the study of benthic ecosystem response to human activity: towards a Coastal Ocean Benthic Observatory” (project #505564) and TG acknowledges DEFRA/EA science project ME3110 for funding.