Nature is at the heart of our ability to exist on this planet.
Look back through human history, and you find countless stories of how our ancestors have lived in harmony with nature. However, you will also see how our natural resources have been harnessed for our apparent benefit. And, in those instance, you almost inevitably find tales of those resources being exploited to the point where they dry up and disappear – but not before they have caused irrevocable damage.
In all that time, the ocean has been quietly going about its business. However, it is now at a tipping point. And development in, and by, the ocean is advancing at a seemingly unstoppable pace.
Over the past century, the ever-growing global population has placed increasing demands on our coastlines. As space to build inland has become limited, megacities have sprung up where previously there were pristine environments. Habitats have been destroyed by artificial islands. Nature has been replaced by metal, concrete and other manmade materials.
It is a process which shows no sign of slowing down. It is predicted that some of the largest remaining stretches of ‘unaltered’ coastlines are expected to experience rapid population growth between now and 2100.
It almost goes without saying – or, at least, it should go without saying – that this is having a negative impact right under our noses. Coastal habitats are being threatened and destroyed. Species which had previously thrived are diminishing, or being replaced by others with different (often inferior) ecological functions and service provisions. Alternatively, their habitats are simply becoming barren. The life-giving properties which prompted people to build by the ocean are being inexorably drained away.
One way to try and overcome this is through the so-called integrated greening of grey infrastructure (IGGI). It aims to take existing manmade structures – such as sea walls, breakwaters and revetments – and adapt them in ways that enhance biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. It is a concept which requires a whole-systems approach uniting engineers and ecologists, communities, and policy makers at local, national and international levels. And we, in Plymouth, have developed a world-leading reputation in its experimentation.
Nothing is as good as the natural habitats and species that have been lost, but we must do something. There is no question that IGGI is a novel solution which attempts to halt biodiversity loss and enhance the marine built environment. However, it cannot simply be used to greenwash new developments. And, at the end of the day, an artificial environment will never be the same as an unspoilt one.
What has happened on our coastlines is easy for people to see. By contrast, the deep sea largely remains a mystery. Remote and hidden, you might think it is safe from human interference. However, the advance of technology and the need to find new resources means it is increasingly being touted as a solution.
Deep sea fishing and oil and gas extraction are already having an impact. And, unchecked, there is the obvious potential for the damage caused in coastal environments to be replicated offshore. But there is still time to change that.
The problem with the deep sea is that we know much less about it. We know it's important, we know it contributes to the health of the planet. And we know there are links to what is happening in the coastal environment. But we don't understand these links terribly well. And we certainly don't understand the nature of the services and the quantities involved to the point where we can make informed decisions about present and future management.
The ability to manage these resources sustainably requires that we first understand deep-sea ecosystems and their role in our planet, its people and its atmosphere. The Challenger 150 programme, recently endorsed as a United Nations Ocean Decade Action, will work towards achieving that.
A global collaboration, it will again use an interdisciplinary approach to generate new geological, physical, biogeochemical, and biological data. These data will be used to understand how changes in the deep sea impact the wider ocean and life on the planet. They are also essential to informing our future deep sea activities. Without this knowledge, we are in danger of making the same mistakes we have on land.
In schools across the world, children learn the 3Rs. For our ocean, we have an adapted version – reserve, restore, rehabilitate. With our developed coastlines, we are already at the stage where our options are limited to restoring and rehabilitating in the face of damage that has already been caused. However, for the deep sea, we still have the chance to reserve – to protect it from damage and preserve its benefits.
To achieve that requires a global effort, drawing in all aspects of society. It requires the appreciation that every aspect of our planet is connected – that our actions on land affect our coastlines, the deep sea and everywhere in between. However, if we are to truly reserve the deep sea for future generations, it is a path we simply have to travel.
Protecting Marine Life: A Whole-System Approach
Professor Kerry Howell and Dr Louise Firth discuss their whole systems approach to protecting marine ecosystems whilst ensuring sustainable blue-green growth.
Kerry Howell, Professor of Deep-Sea Ecology, has a global reputation for providing critical evidence and innovation solutions for the protection of deep-sea habitats. She heads the Deep Sea Conservation Unit, leads or co-leads a number of international initiatives and frequently sees her work embedded in conservation policies around the world. Louise Firth is Associate Professor of Marine Ecology and a marine ecologist who works in both natural and artificial coastal environments. She is interested in the relationship between humans and coastal ecosystems and how this relationship has changed over time.
The COP26 summit, held in Glasgow, Scotland from 31 October to 12 November 2021, brought parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on climate change.
The University of Plymouth is proud to be a part of the COP26 Universities Network whose mission it is to ensure that the UK academic sector plays its role in delivering a successful COP26, in order to deliver a zero-carbon, resilient world.