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| Marine Ecosystems

Science fiction may call outer space ‘the final frontier’, but there is still a largely unexplored one much closer to home: the mysterious world of the oceans covering 70% of the Earth’s surface.

Oceans are home to an enormous range of species – many still undiscovered – from the titanic blue whale to the microscopic phytoplankton.  They also play a vital role in determining Earth’s climate.

Delicate balance

Ancient legends depict oceans as the home of mighty beasts or wrathful gods but, in reality, they are extremely fragile environments. Even minor changes in temperature or slight upsets in the balance between various species can have broad and devastating consequences. In order to preserve the delicacy of the marine ecosystem, we need to learn much more about how it is affected by changes – manmade and natural – taking place all around. 

With 40% of the world’s population living within 100km of the coastline and hundreds of millions of people dependent on the oceans for their livelihood, plugging the gaps in our knowledge is crucial. This is especially so as human activities, such as overfishing, shipping pollution and climate change, are threatening our seas.

Research funded by the European Union has helped to identify a number of threats, including the loss or degradation of biodiversity, changes in the delicate equilibrium of marine ecosystems, loss of habitats and food sources, as well as contamination by dangerous substances and nutrients.

A question of science

In order to preserve the world’s oceans from being overexploited and protect its marine ecosystems from irreparable harm, societies need to address a number of urgent questions: 

  • How is biodiversity affected by human-induced changes and natural processes?
  • How quickly can ecosystems recover once the cause of the damage has been removed?
  • How do changes in species diversity and structure affect marine ecosystems?
  • What are the effects of chemical and industrial discharges?

Long-term commitment

The Union is funding numerous ongoing research projects to further understanding of marine ecosystems. These are investigating such important issues as whether trawling ‘stirs up’ pollutants lying in underwater sediments, how it destroys fragile ecosystems such as sea mountains and corals, the transfer of atmospheric pollutants to the oceans, and the impacts of human activities, such as overfishing, on marine biodiversity.

From 1994 to 1998, this research was funded by the ‘Marine science and technology programme’ under the EU’s Fourth Framework Programme (FP4). Under FP5 (1998-2002), it was financed by the ‘Sustainable marine ecosystems’ component of the ‘Energy, environment and sustainable development’ key action.

The current Framework Programme (2002-2006) is seeking to enhance the understanding of marine ecosystems and biodiversity under its €2.1 billion ‘Sustainable development, global change and ecosystems’ thematic priority.

Latest News on Marine Ecosystems


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Marine Ecosystems
The following are some examples of research projects and support actions funded by the European Union which aim to improve scientific understanding of marine ecosystems.

Marine Genomics Europe (MGE) is a multidisciplinary European Network of Excellence bringing together 44 institutions from 16 countries. It acts as a crossroads between the life sciences, ecology, the environment and bio-informatics. MGE aims to develop, utilise and promote genomic approaches to the study of the biology of marine organisms and the functioning of marine ecosystems.

Marine Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning   (MARBEF) is a Network of Excellence bringing together 56 partners with the aim of integrating research efforts by forming a dedicated group of marine scientists and institutes, as well as creating a virtual European institute with long-term research programmes and dedicated links with industry and the public at large. In addition to better coordinating research, this involves training, exchanges and outreach activities in several relevant fields of science, including marine ecology and biogeochemistry, fisheries biology, taxonomy and socio-economic sciences.