There are three areas in the German Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the North Sea that have been designated as Natura 2000 protected areas. The Natura 2000 program is an interconnected network of protected areas within the European Union. Together with the Birds Directive, the so-called Fauna-Flora-Habitat Directive regulates the protection of endangered wild plants and animals in their natural habitats in the Natura 2000 areas. Since September 2017, the marine Natura 2000 areas of the EEZ have been protected nationally as nature conservation areas by six protected area ordinances. Marine nature conservation areas are reported internationally as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). In total, the North Sea MPAs “Doggerbank”, “Borkum Reef Grond” and “Sylter Outer Reef – Eastern German Bight” cover an area of 7,920 km² and thus approx. 28 percent of the North Sea's EEZ.
Utilization of Marine Protected Areas
The exploitation of marine resources, such as recreational fishing and commercial fishing, are regulated inside MPAs through management plans that list protective measures and their implementation. Protective measures in MPAs are not uniformly regulated worldwide, but follow a prescribed legal framework within Europe. In general, exploitation in the MPA are permitted if they correspond to the achievement of the area-specific protection goals. As a result, in some MPAs exploitations such as fishing are not regulated, while in others limited or closed seasons are imposed or there is a complete fishing ban. The federal government is responsible for implementation in the Natura 2000 areas within the EEZ - represented by the “Bundesamt für Naturschutz” (BfN) and the “Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit“ (BMU) The BfN is directly responsible for the implementation of the management plans for the protected areas in the EEZ. For the implementation of the actual protective measures the respective competent authorities are responsible (https://www.bfn.de/themen/meeresnaturschutz/nationale-meeresschutzgebiete.html). The management plans for the three MPAs in the North Sea EEZ came into force in May 2020.
Effect of mobile, bottom-contact fishing
Bottom trawls are often used in so-called mobile bottom-contact fishing (Mobile grundberührende Fischerei=MGF). The main effects on marine ecosystems are caused by the otter boards, which are used to keep the net horizontally open. Otter boards plow through the sediment and thus have a negative impact on the sediments and organisms on the seabed. Negotiations on the exclusion of MGF take place within the framework of the European Common Fisheries Policy at EU level and in consultation with neighboring countries.
In the two North Sea protected areas of Borkum Riffgrund and Sylt Outer Reef-Eastern German Bight, the use of MGF has been excluded in large parts since March 2023.
The MGF-Nordsee research project provided a unique opportunity to track how benthic habitats that have been heavily influenced by human use develop following the exclusion of MGF. To this end, a comprehensive baseline status of the areas was initially investigated and documented as a reference in Phase I of the project. Now, in Phase II, we can follow how biotic communities, seabed morphology, biogeochemistry of marine sediments and exchange processes between sediment and water column develop without further disturbance. Such influences on MPAs and marine ecosystems have hardly been studied so far and the results provide an important basis for a future, adapted management of protected areas in the North Sea.
Our work follows a modern, holistic approach that includes all components of the ecosystem in order to investigate the effects of MGF exclusion. The data will form the basis for future monitoring in the areas, enabling changes in status to be recognized in good time and, if necessary, countermeasures or further protective measures to be taken.
Protection and sustainable use of marine resources
The pilot mission, which is being carried out in close cooperation with the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), is part of the research mission "Protection and Sustainable Use of Marine Areas" (sustainMare) of the German Marine Research Alliance (Deutsche Allianz Meeresforschung - DAM). DAM unifies 22 leading German marine research institutions with the aim of strengthening the sustainable use of the coasts, seas and oceans through research, data management and digitalisation, infrastructures and transfer. Currently, the DAM is working together with its member institutions to develop solution-oriented knowledge and to communicate potential courses of action in politics, business and civil society. It is funded by the federal government and the northern German states of Bremen, Hamburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein.