To see the sea... for what it's worth
Oceans are a vital resource for energy, food, transport, recreation and more. And with mounting evidence of serious pollution, marine litter, overfishing... the world is finally waking up to the importance of Marine Protected Areas to preserve the complex and delicate balance between ecosystems and the services they provide. A massive international consortium, funded by the EU, took up that challenge, focusing on the Mediterranean and Black Seas.
© Tropical studio, #156609903, 2019 source:stock.adobe.com
In the childrens nursery rhyme, a sailor went to sea, sea, sea to see what he can see, see, see but all that he could see, see, see was the bottom of the sea, sea, sea. Today, in many parts of the worlds oceans, he may well be lucky to see that much through the thick plastic and human-triggered algal blooms. Thankfully, the world has started to see the sea for what it is worth, both as a vital economic but also precious natural resource. This growing awareness needs to be channelled into connected policies centred around the latest circular and sustainable bioeconomy ideas.
Thats where the EU-funded COCONET entered the picture, to provide far-reaching guidelines for establishing networks of Marine Protected Areas in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Acknowledging that competing demands for marine resources (energy, fishing, recreation, etc.) can be at odds with nature protection imperatives, the team set out to define and measure the boundaries of dual-use; economy and nature, not economy versus nature. The case they developed looked at sustainable ways of installing off-shore wind farms in or alongside MPAs.
In addition to the competing demands, threats to this natural capital include: alien species, marine litter, overfishing, pollution and their impacts on the living component of marine ecosystems.
"Nature doesn't recognise political borders," says Ferdinando Boero, Professor of Zoology at the University of Naples Federico II, Italy who led COCONET while at the University of Salento. "Neither do the Mediterranean and Black Seas which connect three continents; the EU, alone, cannot manage and conserve its natural capital in an effective way if the other countries that share the same capital do not behave accordingly."
International cooperation, science uniting cultures
A key feature of the project was to involve as many non-EU countries with connections to the two Seas and a stake in their sustainable development. The international cooperation also served as fertile ground for generating and sharing scientific and technological progress while reinforcing collaboration and networks around this topic. Overall, 39 institutes from 22 countries in three continents took part in COCONET, including North African partners from Morocco and Tunisia. The breadth of the consortium comprising physicists, modellers, biologists, ecologists, socio-economists, engineers and approaches taken resulted in an unprecedented holistic overview of MPAs and their needs going forward.
The Moroccan partners, for example, brought their expertise and perspective to the consortium, organising several workshops in Rabat and Marrakesh which had an unexpected but important outcome, Boero reveals, adding that this kind of bridge is important for projects like COCONET to succeed: Science united different cultures with the aim of defending and managing a shared resource nature.
The partners also made a breakthrough documenting clusters of highly connected ecosystem functioning between MPAs which demand what Boero calls networked defence measures nested into coherent spaces or so-called cells of ecosystem functioning.
This requires harmonisation of policies and cultures, shaping them according to the natural conditions. Our guidelines and recommendations are based on this vital connectivity; from information collection, identification of ecosystem cells, definition of networks and priority areas, to all the management planning stages. The connections are biological and ecological, but also cultural, explains Boero. A detailed list of recommendations can be found on the COCONET repository.
Using geographic information systems (GIS), the team also developed a smart wind chart displaying the suitability of various coastal areas for offshore wind farms, including predictions of likely wind conditions in various areas over the coming decades, and other useful scientific data.
Music of science
COCONETs holistic approach extended to its focus on innovative forms of communication, which included a documentary film, From hotspots to nets, posters, graphics, press outreach plus some 200 publications covering diverse topics.
Bringing the contributions of so many partners together into a coherent set of recommendations and communications strategy was a big challenge. But now that it is finished, COCONETs project coordinator can now be philosophical about the experience: Science is like music; each discipline is an instrument and if you listen to them in isolation from one another, its just small notes. Only once they play together can the music be heard!
He sees differences between scientists and musicians, though. If 100 musicians play together, you hear beautiful music. If 100 scientists speak together, you have the Babel tower, he suggests. So, we must be able to assemble each contribution to hear the music of science. Another big difference, he continues, is that the scores of a concert are written by an individual, the composer. In the case of science, we have to detect the scores written by nature, and then harmonise them. It is more difficult, but it is also more rewarding.