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Projects illustrate role of science in maritime policy

The important role that research plays in European marine policy was illustrated during a technical briefing at the European Commission in Brussels on 14 June, where several EU-funded marine research projects were presented. The sea and the maritime industry are not usually...

The important role that research plays in European marine policy was illustrated during a technical briefing at the European Commission in Brussels on 14 June, where several EU-funded marine research projects were presented. The sea and the maritime industry are not usually at the forefront of our minds when listing sectors that contribute to our economy. And yet, according to figures available from the Commission, some 40% of the EU's GDP is generated in maritime regions, while almost 90% of external trade is carried by sea. Meanwhile, coastal tourism is responsible for 5% of total GDP, and is increasing annually by 3%. But with any natural resource, there are limitations. It is estimated that 70% of commercial fish species are over-exploited, while the pollution of coastal water threatens marine biodiversity, human health and the income-generating potential of leisure and recreation-based industries. In 2006, the Commission published a Green Paper on a future Maritime Policy for Europe in which it called for a more comprehensive approach towards this valuable resource. It underlined especially the importance of basing this policy strategy around sound research and scientific input. A major gathering of the European marine science community, taking place in Aberdeen in Scotland on 22 June, is expected to agree on a contribution to the Green Paper. At EU research policy level, the importance of marine and maritime research was recognised as early as 1989, when funding of around ¿215 million was made available for research activities related to the sea under the Fourth Framework Programme (FP4). Since then, funding for this area of research has increased significantly, with some 250 projects securing funds totalling ¿612 million under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). These projects address a wide range of issues, including marine pollution and its impact on marine biodiversity and ecosystems, and human health; and ensuring the sustainability of marine resources, goods and services. 'Thanks to this support, the marine and maritime research and ecological community looks completely different today, compared to 20 years ago,' said Dr Zoran Stancic, Deputy Director General of the Commission's Research DG, who presented the figures at the briefing. One project which is significantly contributing to marine policy is HERMES, (Hotspot Ecosystems Research on the Margins of European Seas). Having started in 2005, the project is examining the biodiversity, structure, function and dynamics of ecosystems along Europe's deep-ocean coast margin. This is a part of the sea that is relatively unknown to scientists and policymakers. But given that it covers an area equivalent to one third of the world's land mass and lies within Europe's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the exploitation of its biological, energy and mineral resources should be of great interest and concern to EU policymakers. But it is difficult to legislate about an area we know so little about, said Dr Anthony Grehan of the National University of Ireland, Galway, one of HERMES project partners. 'Everyone knows for instance that climate change is happening, but we don't know how it is affecting the deep seas,' he pointed out. There is also no knowing the impact of sea fishing, and gas and oil exploitation, which are starting to extend into deeper sea waters. This is where HERMES can help. Bringing together scientists from a variety of disciplines - geology, sedimentology, physical oceanography, microbiology and biogeochemistry - it is providing the scientific basis for the sustainable management of Europe's offshore resources. Using scientific data, the project is developing a number of tools and approaches to help resource managers and policymakers in their decision making. An example is a set of socio-economic indicators and criteria for describing both the monetary and non-monetary values to society of the hotspot ecosystems identified by the scientists. Another exemplary project is VISIONS, a network which brings together industrial and research partners from the maritime sector to develop visionary concepts for sea vessels and floating structures. The network is focusing on five market areas: maritime tourism and leisure; short sea shipping; inland shipping; deep sea shipping and floating infrastructures. Acting as a think-tank for new ideas which could be marketable in the medium to long term, the network is specifically designed to combine scientific expertise with industrial and market requirements, and to encourage different thinking about future maritime and marine needs and uses. In 2006, students were invited from all around Europe to participate in a contest to find the most innovative marine and maritime concepts out there. Going upon the winners, the network would appear to be successfully spurring on new ideas that are of interest to industry. The top prizes (3 winners) were awarded to (1) a mobile floating wind farm, which could be moved to wherever there are consistent winds to produce and store energy (this farm could have the dual role of a fuelling station for ships); (2) an ultra large floating container hub, which tackles the problem of freight storage congestion by mooring the hub out at sea; and (3) an underwater yacht, which could be submerged and used for underwater tourism. 'Having generated a lot of thought-provoking ideas among the students, it's obviously really important to get that back into industry to challenge them into thinking about what technologies have to be developed and what projects to set in motion to enable those concepts to be realised,' explained Duncan Forbes of Rolls-Royce Marine, one of the project partners. The network therefore organises an annual event to showcase these ideas to industry. At the most recent event, many of the students who had been involved in designing the new concepts were offered jobs by industry representatives, an indication according Mr Forbes of the feasibility of their ideas. The final project showcased at the technical briefing was the Vessel Detection System (VDS). Developed by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, the system uses satellite images to monitor fishing vessels' activity, regardless of whether vessels have reported their position. VDS was successfully demonstrated in the North-East Atlantic, Baltic, Barents and North Seas, Western Waters and the Mediterranean. It is a powerful new tool to check for non-compliance with fishing regulations, and thereby helps to reduce illegal fishing. 'Yet despite these successes, marine research has been developed in a relatively isolated and uncoordinated way, so for the future a more comprehensive approach must include a consistent and unified research agenda to avoid duplication and to ensure maximum returns on every taxpayer's euros,' said Dr Stancic.