| 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.
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?
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.
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