Underwater view of a coral reef

Marine scientists at the University of Plymouth have contributed to a major national project designed to highlight how some of the UK’s most important marine habitats and species are being affected by climate change.

The initiative, by the Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP), aims to show how the effects of rising temperatures, ocean acidification and sea-level rise can be managed in the future.

It has drawn together leading experts from academia and conservation agencies to produce a series of report cards, focusing on seven areas known to be vulnerable to climate change.

Professor of Marine Biology Jason Hall-Spencer was contacted by MCCIP having led related research in both UK and international waters.

He was among the contributors to a report highlighting the state of the UK’s maerl beds and, along with former PhD student Laura Pettit, worked on a report examining the threats posed to coral gardens.

Maerl Beds

Maerl Beds

Professor Hall-Spencer says: "Until this century very little was known about maerl habitats in the UK. Over the past 20 years our research, with colleagues at the Universities of Glasgow, Coruna and Brest has shown that towed fishing gear and fish farms are highly damaging to maerl beds and that rising CO2 levels are likely to cause them to dissolve in northern cold waters. Thanks to this body of research the distribution and main impacts to maerl beds are now well known. This maerl research has been used by OSPAR, the European Union and the UK Government to inform policy, providing solutions to the practical conservation of maerl bed habitats."

Coral gardens

Coral gardens

Professor Hall-Spencer says: “I began my research into coral gardens aboard French and Scottish trawlers working along the continental shelf break region off Ireland and Scotland, and was shocked to see corals as bycatch in these cold northern waters. We documented damage to coral habitats and used this evidence, combined with satellite tracking of fishing vessel data, to design the first marine protected areas for deep-water corals in UK waters. Students and staff in the University of Plymouth Marine Institute are now working on how rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are causing warming and acidification of seawater, pinpointing regions where Britain’s cold water coral gardens and reefs are most likely to survive if we are able to keep to the Paris Agreement targets.”

The new MCCIP reports cover saline lagoons, saltmarsh, maerl, coral gardens, sandeels, horse mussels and seagrass. 

These are some of the UK’s most important protected features, support diverse plant and animal communities, act as nursery grounds for fish and shellfish and play a critical role in the global carbon cycle by storing carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change effects.

The report cards highlight the need for a holistic approach that reduces other man-made pressures to boost resilience to climate change, gives due consideration to climate change during marine planning exercises, and allows for flexible management of marine protected areas and their boundaries.

Full detailed findings from the seven cards are available at www.mccip.org.uk/adaptation.

Marine Institute

Representing 3000 staff, researchers and students, the University of Plymouth's Marine Institute is the first and largest such institute in the UK. 

We provide the external portal to our extensive pool of world-leading experts and state-of-the-art facilities, enabling us to understand the relationship between the way we live, the seas that surround us and the development of sustainable policy solutions.

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Marine Institute

The Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre (MBERC)

Members of the MBERC address a broad range of research questions, from the effects of environmental stress on microbes and developing embryos to the management of large scale impacts, such as global climate change.

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Students in the national marine aquarium looking at fish in a big tank