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Protection through connection
The Mediterranean Sea represents less than one per cent of global ocean cover, yet it holds approximately 15 per cent of all known marine species. Contained within it is a rich diversity of habitats and, along with the connected Black Sea, is one of the most economically and ecologically important regions in Europe..
The two bodies of water — collectively known as the Southern European Seas — are a significant source of fish globally, but 50 per cent of their fish stocks are currently overfished. “The Black Sea in particular is of great importance for the people of the surrounding countries, with anchovies, mackerel, sprat and other marine species providing a substantial portion of economic output for the region,” says Bayram Özturk, head of the Marine Biology Department at Istanbul University and one of the work package leaders in the CoCoNet project. “To keep these fisheries running well the biodiversity of the region must be protected.”
Marine protected areas (MPAs) have been established throughout the Mediterranean and Black Seas in an attempt to safeguard areas of high biological importance and productivity. Fishing and other activities are restricted in these areas, which in the long term helps improve the productivity of surrounding fisheries by promoting the spread of fish larva. Areas of natural beauty are also preserved as a result of lying within these protected zones, which is important for tourism activities.
Natural beauty, however, represents only one facet of what conservation efforts should look to protect. For example, Posidonia is an endemic seagrass found in the Mediterranean that acts as a nursery for a number of species. It helps to fix sediments and create new substrate for benthic species. It also absorbs CO2 and produces oxygen, giving it the nickname “the lungs of the Mediterranean”. Although not as attractive as corals and seafans, its ecological role is essential so it must therefore be preserved. The seaweed Phyllophora plays a similarly essential role in the Black Sea, providing a habitat for invertebrates and fish.
The creation of MPAs in the region has been a welcome addition to conservation efforts in the region, but there are various issues that need to be addressed. The current area that MPAs cover in the Mediterranean and Black Seas is negligible (4.56 per cent in the Meditteranean, 2.4 per cent in the Black Sea), and different levels of regulation exist in the surrounding countries. “Political borders are ecologically meaningless; there are no boundaries in the sea,” says
The main aims of the CoCoNet project regard two priorities for the Mediterranean and Black Seas Seas. The first was to produce guidelines for creating networks of MPAs that are connected, a far more cohesive and effective strategy for conservation. The second was to produce a smart wind chart to aid the installation of offshore wind farms. The CoCoNet Consortium comprises 39 institutes from 22 countries in three continents, acknowledging that the protection of the environment and the ensuing sustainable development is not a matter of political boundaries.
The CoCoNet guidelines recommend increasing the geographical coverage of protection through the establishment of new arrays of MPAs in the southern and eastern parts of the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the entire Black Sea. However, this alone is not enough to protect biodiversity in the area. One of the main problems stems from the criteria used to establish MPAs in the first place. They are generally created in areas of subjective natural beauty, but this beauty will disappear if the functions of the systems that sustain them are not also protected. Beauty is often necessary to convince people that a place deserves protection, but protecting only this is not sufficient to warrant successful conservation.
Creating networks of MPAs can help to protect the environment in a more effective way than isolated MPAs. Any action is sustainable only if good ecosystem functioning is promoted and maintained. Marine biodiversity and ecosystem functioning are the pillars of this. The first priority is maintaining biodiversity, after which other factors such as threats to environmental quality are considered.
All organisms rely on their natural habitat, and all habitats in the sea are connected to those surrounding them as well as other more distant habitats. The sea connects all areas together in ways that are not immediately obvious through an intricate network of currents and gyres, with habitats dependent on the plankton and other nutrients that are brought in by the constantly moving water. “Connectivity is the key word when looking at conservation in the sea,” explain Boero. “All areas of biodiversity are connected by the currents, so we must find units of conservation that can help us design networks of MPAs.”
The scientific community has a tendency to err towards reductionism, carving up systems into constituent parts and studying them separately. In the field of ecology, this allows researchers to break up the vast web of interactions between organisms in an ecosystem that is otherwise too unwieldy and complex to study. Although useful, this approach is susceptible to overlooking the emergent properties of a system – it cannot recognise whether a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In the Mediterranean and Black Seas, the EC’s Habitats Directive currently treats only the sea floor as a marine habitat. These areas are then subdivided further, into plankton, crustaceans and other sub units of the ecosystem. The principle behind CoCoNet has been to integrate all of these sub units to try and bring a more holistic approach to conservation in the region.
One of the biggest challenges for the project has been to work out what a natural unit of conservation should be. The final consensus was that conservation units should consist of volumes, and not just areas, because they include the water column, the most widespread environment of the planet. This allows the high seas and the deep seas to be conserved through the networks of MPAs.
The identification of natural conservation units has been one of the outstanding achievements of CoCoNet. These units are defined as the Cells of Ecosystem Functioning (CEFs), and are based on both oceanographic and ecological processes, arranged in space so as to account for both patterns (biodiversity distribution) and processes (ecosystem functioning). The CEF concept can be extended to all marine systems, since they integrate the coast, the sea bottom and the water column.
Manmade structures such as shipwrecks that end up on the seafloor are capable of harbouring all sorts of life, providing space for life on muddy or sandy seafloors. Sea fans, sponges and corals can colonise the structures which then in turn attract fish, thus establishing a whole new ecosystem. The researchers from CoCoNet have been investigating this concept with the idea that offshore wind platforms could provide rich habitats that act as stepping-stones between MPAs as well as providing clean energy. The guidelines produced through the project give a number of recommendations for the installation of offshore wind farms, and a smart wind atlas has also been created.
A stakeholder meeting in January 2016 was held, with Members of European Parliament as well as representatives from Black Sea countries such as Turkey present. The day was dedicated to presenting the findings of the CoCoNet project in relevant terms to policy makers, academics and industrial leaders. As Özturk summarises: “The sea is a system. Protecting hotspots of biodiversity without providing a network of protection is a hopeless enterprise, and this is a message that must be conveyed to politicians and other stakeholders in the Mediterranean and Black Seas.”
Published: Monday, 21st March 2016