A 2.5 million Euro research project, 'European Lifestyles and Marine Ecosystems', has predicted a dire future for Europe's four regional seas.
As part of the research, the group of over 100 scientists from 28 institutions from 15 European countries, focused on the four major European sea areas: Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and North-East Atlantic.
The researchers examined four cross-cutting environmental issues: habitat change, eutrophication (over-fertilisation of the sea), chemical pollution and fishing.
For each issue and sea, the scientists devised models linking economic and social drivers, environmental pressures and the state of the environment.
Findings revealed that Europe's regional seas were showing a serious state of decline, particularly when the complex web of interactions between different human pressures was taken into account.
Eutrophication continued to be a severe problem for the most enclosed seas (the Baltic Sea, Black Sea and the Adriatic within the Mediterranean Sea).
Researchers said this was partly due to a legacy of past phosphate and nitrogen loads (from agriculture and industrial/domestic effluent) that had accumulated in soils, aquifers and sediments and continued to leak into the sea.
This may be further exacerbated by nutrient loads accompanying intensification of food production in Europe. This combination of pressures limits the scope for short-term remedial action and in the case of the Baltic Sea; short-term prospects for reducing eutrophication are particularly bleak, said Prof. Laurence Mee, the project coordinator, and Director of the Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth.
Prof. Mee said European political and economic landscape had witnessed unparalleled changes in the last two decades, particularly resulting from expansion of the EU, decline of the centrally planned communist Bloc and pursuit of rapid economic growth.
Findings further revealed that the future condition of each sea was closely associated with the economic options that will be pursued in Europe, the transport of goods to and from other parts of the world and the European regulatory framework.
Changing economies and a more mobile labour force was likely to affect fisheries, though success or failure was currently clearly tied to the 'total allowable catch' set through the Common Fisheries Policy, Prof. Mee said.
As such, unless European countries took urgent action to prevent further damage from current and emerging patterns of development, the continent's local seas might face permanent damage, he said.
"In every sea, we found serious damage related to the accelerated pace of coastal development, the way we transport our goods and the way we produce our food on land as well as the sea. Without a concerted effort, to integrate protection of the sea into Europe's development plans, its biodiversity and resources will be lost," said Prof. Mee.
"Europeans are just beginning to wake up to the fact that the area of their seas is bigger than the land and that it is already seriously degraded," he said.