North Sea

The North Sea is a rich body of water with a great diversity of marine life. This combination of natural wealth and its geographical location make the North Sea a crowded place: shipping, oil and gas platforms, sand mining, the fishing industry, wind farms and coastal defences all compete with each other for space. The North Sea coast itself is also crowded: around 80 million people live within a radius of 150 kilometres of its shores. In this dossier, you will find news, background information and the results of our research on and around the North Sea.

The North Sea requires careful management and this poses a major challenge for society. And has led to various laws, policies and management plans. The most important of these are are the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), the Birds and Habitats Directives, the North Sea Natura 2000 programme and the Common Fisheries Policy of the European Union. Researchers of Wageningen University & Research are trying to find integrated solutions to the many issues that affect the North Sea in the area of nature conservation, energy production, marine spatial planning, safety and food supply.

The North Sea is changing

The North Sea is relatively young. Before the last ice age, eleven thousand years ago, it was still land. Today it is a relatively shallow sea; much of its southern waters are no deeper than 50 metres.

The North Sea will change significantly in the coming decades, both in terms of the life that lives in it and the way it is used and experienced. Climate change will have consequences in the form of rising sea temperatures and sea levels and more violent storms. Some species are already migrating northwards due to the increasing temperature of the water. For example, red mullet is now common on the Dutch coast, which was not the case 30 years ago.

As part of the fight against climate change, the Netherlands is investing in large-scale energy generation through the construction of offshore wind farms, which will eventually cover some 20 to 30 per cent of the Dutch North Sea. This is a far-reaching change that will have significant ecological effects and major consequences for other functions, including fishing. These wind farms, but also the pulse trawling ban, the landing obligation and the Brexit will all have a major effect on the North Sea fishing industry.

Offshore aquaculture in the North Sea (such as seaweed and shellfish farms) is expected to play a greater role in sustainable food production.

Research into more sustainable development of the North Sea

Nature management

Nature 2000 and MSFD sites

Six areas in the North Sea have been designated as Natura 2000 sites, including Dogger Bank, the Frisian Front and the Voordelta. These areas contain habitats of particular environmental importance such as reefs and sand banks that are protected under the European Habitats Directive. Two areas also fall under the Birds Directive areas, as they provide an important habitat for sea and shore birds. Researchers of Wageningen University & Research are monitoring the status of the species and the environment in the North Sea and contribute knowledge and advice for nature policy development.

List of species in the Dutch North Sea

Almost 1300 multicellular species occur in the North Sea, 6% of which are exotic. The government can use the List of Species of the North Sea (co-developed by Wageningen University & Research) as its starting point for the development of policy for the conservation of natural biodiversity and the installation of nature-inclusive offshore wind farms in the North Sea.

Cleverly designed wind turbine foundations with burrows and corridors can serve as places for sea life to shelter and forage. Nature can similarly encouraged to develop on the structural parts of offshore platforms. The smart use of such structures is a good start, but it will remain a challenge to ensure that the nature in the North Sea is diverse and rich enough to adapt to the changing conditions. A healthy, resilient and productive ecosystem is needed.

The marine species of the Dutch North Sea, the Wadden Sea and/or the Zeeland Delta are listed in the Dutch Register of Species, as are the types of substrates. This data has been collected in the Register of Species of the Dutch North Sea (Bos et al., 2016) that was drawn up by Wageningen Marine Research with funding from the Ministry of Economic Affairs in cooperation with Naturalis Biodiversity Center and GiMARIS.

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Safety in the face of rising sea levels

It is becoming increasingly clear that civil engineering measures alone (e.g. dikes) will not be sufficient to protect the Netherlands against climate change, wave action and rising sea levels. Nature itself is increasingly being deployed to mitigate the effects of climate change. This is also called Building with Nature.

Wageningen University & Research is involved in several Building with Nature projects, including experimental Japanese oyster reefs in Zeeland’s Eastern Scheldt, a former estuary. The shellfish beds will form natural breakwaters for coastal protection, reducing wave action and erosion of the sandbanks as well as increasing biodiversity.

An artificial peninsula of sand called the Sand Motor has been created in Zuid-Holland. Here, the wind and tidal currents will spread the sand out along the coast to strengthen the dunes.

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If it is to achieve the climate targets, the Netherlands will have to generate 80% of its electricity using solar and wind power by 2030. Some 300 turbines have already been erected in the North Sea and there are plans for even more wind farms. 

Wind farms do not only have consequences for the use of space by others, such as fishing vessels, but they also have an impact on the ecosystem. For example, wind turbines obstruct the migratory routes of some bird species. Mammals such as seals and bats may also be hindered by wind turbines and the work of installing them. Wageningen University & Research conducts research into the ecological and economic impact of constructing and operating wind farms and thereby helps the government and wind farm operators to find measures to minimise the effects.

Food from wind parks

Researchers are also investigating how wind farms could contribute to the food supply. There will be nine billion people living on the planet by 2050, and wind farms offer various opportunities for aquaculture to help feed them all. Food from the sea such as seaweed is considered to be an important source of protein for the future.

Opportunities for nature development in wind farms

Wind farms offer opportunities for nature conservation and recovery. The seabed under a wind farm remains relatively undisturbed, while the artificial structures offer a potential habitat for sea life. Cleverly designed wind turbine foundations with burrows and corridors can serve as places where sea animals can shelter and forage. One example of this is the reintroduction of flat oysters in the undisturbed zones between wind turbines. Nature can similarly be enhanced on the solid structures that remain after oil and gas platforms are decommissioned.

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Fishing industry

Monitoring and catch advice

People have been eating fish caught in the North Sea for centuries. Some 220 species currently live in these waters, and Dutch fishers catch species such as turbot, sole, plaice, cod and herring. Since the 1970s, the European Union has regulated fishing by establishing fishing quotas. The quotas are based on scientific stock assessments and annual monitoring by Wageningen Marine Research (as part of the European ICES programme) reveals that these quotas have led to a significant reduction in fishing pressure and that there is now a positive outlook for the principal commercial fish stocks.

Innovative fishing techniques

The most important question today is how these fish will be caught. Pulse trawling has been banned since April 2019, and researchers of Wageningen University & Research are in close cooperation with the fishing industry to find practical, cost-effective and sustainable alternatives.


The departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union may have a major impact on the fishing industry. European agreements on fishing grounds, trade and fish quotas proved a stumbling block in the Brexit negotiations. Wageningen Economic Research conducted several studies into the consequences of a hard Brexit, whereby fishers would be denied access to British waters. Up to 60% of the fish caught by the Dutch pelagic fleet and 35% of the catch of the cutter fleet is sourced from British waters. It goes without saying that the consequences will not be limited only to the primary sector, but will also effect all businesses and organisations with fishing-related activities. A study entitled Impact of hard Brexit on European fisheries, Scenario analysis using the MAGNET model (Bartelings et al., 2018) examined the wider consequences of the Brexit. Clearly, the actual consequences can only be assessed after it has been established exactly how the Brexit will be shaped.

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North Sea 2030

The government is developing a strategy for the future of the North Sea. The North Sea Agreement concluded in June 2020 sets out the agreements between the central government, industry, nature organisations and the fishing sector. The aim is to find a long-term balance between the strategic challenges of the energy transition (as set out in the Climate Agreement), the recovery of marine nature and a healthy future for the fishing industry in the North Sea.

Wageningen University & Research is contributing scientific knowledge from various disciplines to the formulation of policy choices for a robust and future-proof North Sea up to 2030 and beyond.

Projects about the North Sea

Publications about the North Sea