Ecosystems and biodiversity: a new approach to the conservation of marine resources

May 13, 2004

Brussels, 12 May 2004

In the past, the term 'marine resources' has essentially been applied to one resource alone: fisheries. Indeed, as a source of economic activity and food, fish undoubtedly remain one of our most important marine commodities. But recent scientific advances have begun to reveal the wealth of other resources contained in our seas and oceans, and have highlighted the threat posed to them by human activities, including large scale fishing.

As well as food, the marine environment now provides a real attraction for citizens, generating billions of euros in tourism and travel. In addition, scientists are discovering new industrial and biotechnology applications for marine resources in areas such as pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, and many believe that effective management of the marine ecology could even play a key role in controlling he effects of climate change.

As a result, there are increasing calls for a new approach to the conservation of these resources, in particular through the protection of marine ecosystems and biodiversity. The role that scientific research in particular can play in this process was discussed by experts and policy makers during a thematic session at the EUROCEAN 2004 conference in Galway, Ireland, on 11 May.

Until recently, the central approach to marine conservation has been 'how many fish can we remove from the seas and oceans while still leaving enough stocks to remove more at a later date,' according to Professor Chris Frid, from the University of Newcastle's school of marine science and technology. 'But fish don't live in bowls in the sea - they are part of an ecosystem, which is affected by the environment, their prey, and their predators, including humans,' argued Professor Frid.

The key challenge in adopting a new, ecosystem-based approach to human activities in the marine environment, he said, is our very limited understanding of the biology of the oceans. Experts have been providing scientific advice to policy makers for many years, and while analyses suggest that the great majority of this advice has proved sound, in many instances it was never followed and the result has been the almost total failure of fisheries management policies in Europe. 'Most people believe that rolling dice would have produced better results,' suggested Professor Frid.

However, there have been some successful small scale attempts within the EU towards adopting an ecosystem approach to fisheries, he acknowledged. Professor Frid gave the example of catch quotas for sand eels. These fish are the staple diet of a bird called the kittiwake at a time when the birds are forced to fish in a very small locale due to the needs of their young. Finding it difficult to directly measure the number of sand eels in a given area, experts instead monitored the breeding success of the kittiwake, and when numbers began to fall sharply they placed a halt on sand eel catches. When kittiwake numbers reached normal levels again, the fishing ban was lifted.

There are many other issues, however, that still need to be addressed, according to Professor Frid. These include complex habitat issues, which play a vital role in marine ecosystems, and the genetics of the marine environment: 'We have already altered the genetic make-up of fish, and we have to realise that there is no way back once these changes have been made.'

Professor Frid concluded that an ecosystem approach would require the application of a much wider range of marine science than at present. In particular, he called for support for better predictive regimes, ecosystem models and simulations that can factor in the effects of human activities, and a better understanding of habitat quality.

The importance of scientific information in shaping marine resource management approaches was emphasised by Dr Gabriella Bianchi, an expert from the fisheries department of the food and agriculture organisation of the United Nations. She quoted the former Prime Minister of Norway, Harlem Brundtland, who during her time in office had said that 'science must underpin our policies'.

However, Dr Bianchi pointed out that it is a fallacy that complete scientific knowledge is a prerequisite for effective marine management. 'Decisions must still be taken, even with limited scientific knowledge, based on the precautionary principle.' Many factors other than incomplete scientific knowledge could also be blamed for poor performance in marine resource management, she said, citing a lack of transparency, poor decision making, and the pursuit of short term political or financial gain.

'[Yet] we do need a much closer relationship between research objectives and management or policy objectives, which until now doesn't exist,' said Dr Bianchi. 'We need to incorporate a long term view in marine science and management, and secure funding for long term strategic objectives.' This will require striking the right balance between private and public sources of research funding, as it is not always possible to expect commercial companies to take the long term view. 'We must therefore revise certain institutional arrangements - within ministries with regard to policies, and within research institutes for science,' Dr Bianchi added.

An important final point, according to Dr Bianchi, is the need to raise public awareness of the science that underlies an ecosystem approach to marine conservation. She advocates activities at primary school level, and a better interaction between scientists, the media and non-governmental organisations.

The message that emerged from the thematic session was summed up neatly by Dr John Joyce, from Ireland's Marine Institute: 'We are sitting on a treasure trove of biological information and resources that we just don't understand. We need to converse with as wide an audience as possible to make them aware of this resource and the threats facing it, or risk killing the goose that laid the golden egg.'

For further information on the conference, please visit:

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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