Brussels, 14 Apr 2005
Europe's deep-ocean margin - where the continental shelf plunges from a depth of 200 metres to the abyssal plain some 4,000 metres below - stretches for some15,000 kilometres, from the Arctic to the Iberian peninsular, extending through the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea.
The majority of this frontier lies within Europe's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and its biological, energy and mineral resources are therefore of great strategic interest. But exploiting these resources in a sustainable manner requires a thorough understanding of the ocean margin ecosystem - something that does not exist today, but which a new 15 million euro EU research project is aiming to provide.
The HERMES project (hotspot ecosystem research on the margins of European seas) is funded under the global change and ecosystems priority of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). With a consortium made up of 36 research institutes and nine small companies from 15 countries, HERMES is one of the largest projects of its kind in the world.
The EU has already funded a number of small research projects on the deep-ocean margin, at specific locations and within one major discipline. The HERMES project represents a significant advance, however, as it involves a coordinated research effort along the entire European margin, and will greatly benefit from the ability to compare results from different locations having employed common research methods.
At a series of study sites, experts from a range of disciplines - biodiversity, geology, sedimentology, physical oceanography, microbiology, biogeochemistry, and socio-economics - will undertake the first major attempt to understand Europe's deep-ocean ecosystems in an integrated way.
The types of ecosystem found at these depths are diverse, from open slopes where biological communities are affected by landslides and deep-ocean currents, to communities dependent on escaping fluids from the seabed (cold seeps), cold-water coral mounds, canyon communities and anoxic environments (those without oxygen).
Coordinating the project is Phil Weaver, from the Southampton Oceanography Centre in the UK. 'These systems are incredibly fragile and need urgent study,' he says. 'A key goal of the HERMES project is to evaluate the vulnerability of these communities to global change and human activities, and if necessary, develop strategies to protect them. The outcome of our research will provide policy advice to the EU.'
The international team will aim to link their research on biodiversity and biological processes with the knowledge they are able to generate on the physical factors affecting these ecosystems, including geology and sedimentology. The scientists are also keen to put their findings into historical context by studying the sediment record to determine long-term environmental changes and their effect on ecosystems.
'Changes due to large-scale natural forcing (e.g. climate oscillations, sea level change) or to more local human effects (e.g. resource exploitation, inputs of pollutants and nutrients) must be distinguished from each other before man's activities make this distinction impossible,' states the project website.
The type of research that the team will carry out over the next four years will require sophisticated technology, such as remotely operated and autonomous underwater vehicles (ROV/AUV). Such resources are only available in certain Member States - another reason why such a large consortium is necessary - and the project will include coordination of the large-scale infrastructure of Europe's marine institutions.
By studying these 'hotspot' deep-ocean ecosystems and the wealth of unknown species that inhabit them, it is hoped that HERMES can deliver the knowledge needed to devise plans for the sustainable management of these most fragile and mysterious of European resources.