From mussels to grasslands, the sea offers great lessons for life

By Ali Jones

In the Tuscan Archipelago, seagrasses capture carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests. Underwater flowering plants have the potential to be an essential tool in the fight against climate change, but are vulnerable to disturbance from human activities such as tourism and fishing.

Coordinated from Cork, Ireland, the four-year Marine SABERS project brings people together to work on the conservation and restoration of ancient Tuscan seagrasses, one of its focus areas.

Arctic and archipelagos

The effects of climate change are being felt in oceans around the world. With 22 institutions from 11 Member States, the EU-funded project will strengthen marine biodiversity in the Tuscan Archipelago, the Arctic and Macaronesia (a group of four volcanic archipelagos in the North Atlantic Ocean).

For the herbaria that grow in the Tuscan Archipelago, this means examining the impact of tourism on its conservation. Many groups – from port authorities to tour operators – are involved in tourism. The project’s first job is to identify these key players, then discuss feasible options with them and engage local residents to get involved.

‘We want to try to enable managers working in these areas to make sustainable decisions,’ said Dr Emma Verling, who coordinates Marine SABERS at University College Cork. “And to empower citizens to become more engaged in the conservation of marine biodiversity.”

life links

One of the main aims of the project is to show clearly how economic, social and ecological systems are all linked.

“We have to try to help people better understand that we are really supported by marine ecosystems,” Verling said. “The ocean is not just a beautiful thing – there is a real connection between it, our health and our livelihoods.”

Each of the three sites will bring together a group unique to its own activities and will help stakeholders address the social, economic and environmental factors they face in decisions that impact biodiversity.

A second project in Ireland is stimulating community engagement with some of Europe’s youngest citizens. A high-tech mobile classroom – known as the Aquaculture Remote Classroom (ARC) – brings a new generation of marine resources to primary school children. This is part of an effort to restore and protect our oceans for future generations.

Designed by the Irish Seafood Development Agency (BIM) and funded by the EU, the experience includes virtual reality (VR) headsets giving children a virtual dive into aquaculture to learn about the processes of production of fish and shellfish.

Children and aquaculture

The traveling classroom brings the sights and sounds of the sea to life, explaining how salmon, oysters and mussels are farmed in Irish waters. In Ireland, no point is more than 100 kilometers from the sea. And although many young people live in coastal communities, they generally know very little about aquaculture.

Thirty thousand children have visited the classroom so far and it has received rave reviews.

“The ARC was amazing – it was a lot of fun,” was how a pupil from Shanagolden National School in County Limerick described the experience. “We learned all about seafood, the food pyramid and how humans affect the seas and coastal environments.” More: “VR headsets were cool.”

By reaching out to young minds, the project hopes to instill knowledge early on and debunk myths about the diseases and damage that can plague the aquaculture industry, according to Caroline Bocquel, BIM’s interim chief executive.

“The ARC is an ideal opportunity to educate students about the aquaculture sector and bring the factual and positive story of Irish aquaculture to communities,” said Bocquel. “To explain that it’s a force for good that creates jobs, with good career progression.”

Adults are also often misinformed about how aquaculture works and the dietary benefits of eating fish and seafood. So when schools are on vacation, ARC attend seafood festivals and science popularization events.

Moving

ARC and Marine SABERS can be extended to other regions and countries.

“We see ARC as a model for other European nations in aquaculture education and ultimately as part of a cohesive and connected education network that will promote understanding and appreciation of the benefits of sustainable aquaculture,” said Bocquel.

Meanwhile, another EU-funded project called Prep4Blue is also putting citizens, policy makers and businesses at the heart of research in this area. Guided by social and sustainable science, the three-year Prep4Blue will provide tools for researchers to engage people in gathering knowledge to protect the ocean.

Coordinated by the French Institute of Marine Sciences (IFREMER), it brings together 17 partners in eight countries.

“The knowledge is there,” says Prep4Blue coordinator Dr. Natalia Martin Palenzuela, “but somehow we don’t change our behavior.”

All these projects stem from the ambitious EU Ocean and Water Mission, which is a clear call to take up the challenge of protecting and restoring these ecosystems by 2030.

It is a broad basis for science-based environmental action. “The Mission approach aims to increase the uptake of scientific knowledge by citizens and stakeholders, including policymakers, consumers, the economic sector, etc.,” said Dr Martin Palenzuela.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This material was originally published in Horizonthe European magazine for research and innovation.

EU MISSION: RESTORE OUR OCEAN AND OUR WATERS

The Ocean & Waters mission will help achieve the marine and freshwater objectives of the European Green Deal, such as protecting 30% of the EU maritime area and restoring marine ecosystems and 25,000 km of rivers to free flow.

Within the Mission, four “beacons” in large maritime and river basins are test beds for innovative solutions. The Atlantic-Arctic Lighthouse focuses on building coastal resilience by restoring marine and freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity.

It is a formidable challenge. For the Mission to succeed, it must mobilize and engage citizens, scientists, policy makers and all stakeholders.

On 24 and 25 November 2022, the European Commission, with the support of Ireland, will organize an event to mobilize a wide range of actors to join the Mission “Restore our oceans and waters by 2030”, and in particular the Atlantic-Arctic lighthouse. Follow the link to learn more about the event.

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