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LIFEnews features 2012

LIFE improves Natura knowhow for managing marine ecosystems

Europe's marine environment is full of life and the subsea world provides us with many important ecosystem services. Nature protection measures covering this key natural resource remain somewhat in their infancy, but LIFE is involved in charting a course to help Member States put in place management actions for conserving our marine species.

Photo: ALNITAK Nano

Natura 2000 is now well established as a core component of EU nature conservation policy and LIFE has successfully helped to nurture the Natura network’s development over the last two decades. Consequently, an increasing array of the European biodiversity which relies on terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems in Natura areas now enjoy generally more positive prospects. This can often be attributed to the improved knowhow that has been built up about these land, lake and river habitats, as well as their species and associated conservation requirements.

Less however is still known about Europe’s marine ecosystems, and Natura’s reach out into our seas has to date not been as conclusive as it has been onshore. LIFE is involved in developing techniques to address this conservation challenge and excellent results in Natura’s marine domain are being achieved by Spain’s INDEMARES project (LIFE07 NAT/E/000732).

Ignacio Torres is the INDEMARES project manager and he describes why such marine LIFE activity is valuable. “In spite of this being the 21st Century, our marine ecosystems remain largely unknown. Only around one percent of the oceans and seas have been properly investigated so we do not know enough about how they function. Nevertheless, due to the way that these natural resources are used, it is important to better understand our marine ecosystems so that we can safeguard them and the ecosystem services that they provide for us.”

“This is why we set up the INDEMARES project here in Spain because our country has a very long coastline and we are one of the richest European nations in terms of marine biodiversity. In addition, a high percentage of the Spanish economy is dependent on our coasts so this is another reason why it is vital that we find ways to look after our marine environment in an informed way.”

Natura 2000 and the marine environment

Goals set out in the Marine Strategy Framework Directive provide a legal impetus for extending Natura’s coverage into offshore territories and Mr Torres notes that INDEMARES is helping to pioneer methods that can assist marine areas comply with the Directive. “Member States have to designate Marine Natura 2000 sites but the network of these sites has been rather underdeveloped due in part to the fact that oceanographic studies are very costly.”

“Before a site can be designated we need to clarify many different things about it. These studies require a lot time, specialised skills and expensive equipment, as well as complex logistical arrangements. LIFE’s funds helped us cover these costs. LIFE’s input has also provided a project focus and reason to bring together a partnership of those organisations with the material, research vessels and scientific knowledge that are needed to designate marine Natura 2000 sites. Our partners are essential for our project and without them we could not hope to achieve our goals.”

Partners in the INDEMARES project started work in January 2009. Early outputs identified suitable sites and selection criteria that prioritised locations with diverse features or varied biodiversity in natural states. Project sites also had to be representative of other areas into order to provide replicable results with good multiplier opportunities (thus ensuring the EU added value of INDEMARES). A total of ten locations were then chosen from the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Macaronesic regions. LIFE is contributing €7.7 million of EU funding to support these prospective members of the marine Natura network and final project outcomes are anticipated towards the end of 2013.

Sea life inventories

Photo: ALNITAK Nano

Beneficial results have already starting flowing from the 40 different actions that make up the INDEMARES project. David Peña, the project coordinator explains, “The most important technical and budgetary actions are those related to oceanographic campaigns covering detailed studies which are helping us to glean much better knowledge on deep water habitats, pelagic species and seabirds plus other wildlife around the ten sites.”

Reports about the different marine survey results are presented on the INDEMARES’s project bi-lingual website. These highlight some of the high-tech approaches that are being applied with LIFE’s support. Techniques such as specialised and innovative acoustic surveys for monitoring marine life have been tested. An example of the work underway here is the ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) which is used to analyse deep water habitats. This device can reach depths of up to 2000 meters and takes video images showing the different habitats and species that live there. The ROV can also take samples which can be analysed afterwards. “With this method real treasures are being discovered in our seas”, says Mr Peña.

In the project’s Atlantic Ocean sites, close to the Canary Islands, results have successfully produced a three dimensional map of the sea bed and its sub soils. For the first time, records of these deep sea habitats have been made, which along with the biological, ecological, fishing and physical information collated by the project partners, enables the INDEMARES team to evaluate how vulnerable the marine ecosystems are to natural hazards (such as subsea volcanic activity) or to other less-natural threats.

Mr Peña comments, “We are collating very useful data about anthropogenic pressures on the proposed Natura areas. We find that those issues are mostly due to shipping, tourism, defence or fishing. Conclusions from our collective work in these project actions are feeding into cost benefit analysis for nature conservation activity in marine sites. We are now building up a sound knowledge base for us to begin designing tools that are appropriate for both designating Natura sites at sea, and assuring their effective management thereafter.”

New discoveries

Photo: LIFE07 NAT/E/000732

Some notable scientific breakthroughs have been made during the project’s Natura preparatory process. Mr Peña notes, “So far we have discovered: coral reefs that are found in cold water; submarine structures made by leaking gases which host high biodiversity; large populations of different species of whales; not to mention the discovery of a new species of soft coral, which we have been able to formally name as Nidalia indemares.” 

“Overall our progress continues to be on course and the project's primary objective is to secure conservation area status for marine sites within the Natura 2000 network from an ‘ecosystemic’ point of view. Therefore, we are still aiming on achieving a designated marine SCI and SPA. This would make a significant difference to the scope and future potential of the overall Natura 2000 network. It would also be a major accolade for Spain to lead the way in this new field of EU nature conservation.” 

“We have learned some useful lessons that we can pass on to other organisations in other countries. For instance, this type of project requires a mix of different partners and we know that a lot of time and thinking has to be allocated to the coordination and management of the partnership’s needs. We have ten partners, all of which are very different from one another and between them they cover a good range of marine stakeholders. They include government agencies, scientific institutions and NGOs of varying sizes. Thus the pace and method of working is different for each partner. Finding a working method that fits everyone requires careful communication and dedicated planning, particularly in coordinating the availability of vessels, equipment and skills.”

INDEMARES’ experiences are hence generating a lot of useful groundwork for other Member States to follow, and the benefits from this type of project for such countries are summed by Mr Peña. “A comprehensive and balanced marine policy must be based on scientific knowledge. We are gaining this knowledge which can be used to strengthen international conventions and help introduce marine areas that are managed for biodiversity protection in a balanced way that ensures Spain’s sea resources remain a good source of long-term work, food, pleasure and life.”

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