Modern society is significantly dependent on the seas which cover some 71% of the Earth's surface. Not only are the oceans a major source of food, but we also depend on them for things like transportation, energy generation, waste management, and recreation. The marine environment can also play a hidden but crucial role in protecting our coasts from erosion. Any changes which occur within the ocean can therefore have a major impact on society.
Today, the world's oceans face an unprecedented range and intensity of pressures, all potential agents or vectors of change. In addition to fishing, shipping and waste discharge, environmental factors such as climate change play a part. It was for this reason that VECTORS, a four-year European Union (EU)-funded research project, began in February 2011, with the aim of improving our understanding of these changes and their implications.
Even apparently simple changes can disrupt delicate ecosystem balances and have profound 'knock-on' effects on the broader functioning of the marine environment - and consequently upon the benefits we derive from it.
VECTORS project is focused on three key change phenomena within the marine environment. These are: 'outbreaks', where flora or fauna species undergo short-term, massive rises in abundance; the appearance of invasive alien species in non-native locations; and changes in species distribution and productivity.
In themselves, these changes are neither 'good' nor 'bad', explains VECTORS Project Coordinator Dr Melanie Austen, of Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK. The important thing is to understand how they impact the value to society of the 'goods' and 'services' we derive from the seas, whether this value is measured in economic terms or otherwise.
One example is the inadvertent transportation of species from tropical regions, via ships' ballast tanks, to other parts of the world such as the Mediterranean. Global warming means these alien species can now thrive in their new habitat, often with major effects on local species and ecosystems. Better understanding of such changes would have important implications for the global shipping industry and its regulation, says Dr Austen.
To provide the most comprehensive basis for future policy formation, VECTORS focuses on each stage of the change process. This includes identifying and quantifying the pressures of change, such as ocean acidification, pollution, or resource exploitation. Further areas of research include the precise 'mechanism' of change - in other words, how the identified pressures actually result in species outbreaks, invasions or other changes and analysis of the ways in which these changes, in turn, affect both the local ecosystem and human society.
One recent change being investigated by the VECTORS team concerns an invasive seaweed species which has emerged in the Mediterranean. Seaweed plays an important part in binding sediment, and also in cushioning the impact of waves and currents. Both of these functions have important implications for coastal erosion patterns, so any changes in seaweed prevalence are of potential significance to society.
A further role of VECTORS is the projection of the impacts of marine environmental change as far as 20 years into the future. For this purpose, VECTORS is working on the development of a cross-sectoral modelling framework for the Baltic, North Sea, Eastern English Channel and Sicilian Channel. Known as Atlantis, this framework will provide a tool for the evaluation of the costs and trade-offs of maintaining economic activity in various sectors, while at the same time protecting natural resources.
Due to run until 2015, the aim of the wide-ranging, multidisciplinary VECTORS project, supported by €12.5 million of EU funding, is to develop an unprecedented body of knowledge concerning changes to the marine environment. These results will play a key part in developing and implementing future European and international strategies, polices and regulations, from the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive to the International Maritime Organisation's Convention on Ballast Water Management.