On 25th July 2023, the car-carrying cargo ship MV Fremantle Highway caught fire off the coast of the Dutch island of Ameland. The ship was en route from Bremerhaven to Port Said (Egypt) with Singapore as its final destination. It was carrying approximately 3,000 vehicles, presumably destined for sale in Asia. As fuel, the ship was reportedly carrying 1,600 tons of heavy fuel oil and 200 tons of marine diesel oil. Should the ship have sunk or lost structural integrity, long-term environmental damage would have been caused to the Wadden Sea World Heritage Site. The heavy oil would have sunk to the bottom of the sea and would have taken decades to degrade. The marine diesel would have remained for longer on the surface and impacted severely on seabird populations, as well as harbour porpoises and seals (NABU). By way of comparison, the wrecking of the Pallas freight ship in October 1998 with 756 tonnes of oil on board, close to the island of Amrum at the Wadden Sea coast of Schleswig-Holstein, led to a 20-km long oil spill and the deaths of approximately 16,000 seabirds.
The damaged MV Freemantle Highway en route to the port of Eemshaven, photographed from the coast of Borkum, photo: S. Engler-Walsh.
What is the future of marine spatial planning? Will marine plans continue to rely on zoning as a primary means for coordinating the spatial distribution of human activities at sea? Will marine protected areas continue to work with fixed and static boundaries? Multiple-use and co-location are increasingly viewed as core principles for the efficient use of marine space and actively supported both at European level and through multiple funded research and pilot projects . To take one example, the long-term vision of the 2019 Belgian marine spatial plan states that “in the future, the principle of multiple-use of space will be the norm for all use of space within the Belgian North Sea”.
On March 7th 2023, I facilitated and led an online stakeholder workshop on marine spatial planning on behalf of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly. Following the publication of Ireland’s National Marine Planning Framework and marine spatial planning legislation in 2021, the focus has shifted towards the subnational level. Regional Assemblies can, working together coastal local authorities, potentially play a key role in preparation and coordination of Designated Maritime Area Plans for nearshore areas.
Following an open tender process, I have been commissioned by the ASCOBANS Secretariat to develop guidelines for Cetacean-friendly marine spatial planning. ASCOBANS (Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas, entered into force 1994) is the key international agreement for the conservation of small cetaceans (harbour porpoises, dolphins, smaller whale species) in Northern and Western Europe. The ASCOBANS Secretariat is hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and located in Bonn. The development of guidelines for cetacean-friendly MSP contributes to the realisation of effective ecosystem-based management.
In accordance with the EU MSP directive all EU coastal member states were required to produce marine spatial plans by 2021. Not all have met this deadline but many are now published and adopted by national governments. A key requirement of the MSP directive is that marine spatial plans follow an ecosystem-based approach and contribute to the achievement of Good Environmental Status for marine ecosystems, as set out in the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive. Over the last nine months or so, I have been engaged in the evaluation of selected national-level marine spatial plans, with a view to assessing their degree of alignment with EU environmental legislation and policy objectives. This work has been commissioned by environmental NGOs: Birdlife International and the Irish umbrella NGO Sustainable Water Network (SWAN). In the following, I provide an overview of this work with links to the published reports.