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A Trans-AtLantic Assessment and deep-water ecosystem-based Spatial management plan for Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - ATLAS (A Trans-AtLantic Assessment and deep-water ecosystem-based Spatial management plan for Europe)

Reporting period: 2019-05-01 to 2020-10-31

Conclusions of the action
ATLAS advanced our understanding of North Atlantic deep-sea ecosystems (200-2000 m depth), including their connectivity, functioning, and response to predicted climatic changes. ATLAS developed a scientific knowledge base at N Atlantic basin scale which informs sustainable management decisions and policies. Ultimately, ATLAS contributions help implement the Galway Statement and the European Commission’s long-term Blue Growth strategy supporting sustainable growth in the marine and maritime sectors. Specifically, ATLAS achieved its objectives by:

1. Advancing our understanding of deep-Atlantic ecosystems and populations by collecting and integrating high-resolution measurements of ocean circulation with functioning, biological diversity, genetic connectivity, and socioeconomic values;
2. Improving the capacity to monitor, model and predict shifts in deep-water ecosystems and populations in response to future change through a better understanding of the connections between physical parameters and biological characteristics supporting sustainable exploitation in the North Atlantic;
3. Generating new data and tools to inform robust ocean governance that aligns with ecosystem-based maritime spatial planning approaches, to achieve ecosystem preservation, and Blue Growth objectives;
4. Developing and testing the adaptive management strategies for deep-sea resources needed for sustainable Blue Growth.
Overview of the results
ATLAS made a step change in our understanding of North Atlantic deep-sea biodiversity through the discovery/description of 30+ benthic communities and the description of 12+ species new to science. Studies highlighted the superior role of hard-bottom coral reefs and deep-sea sponge grounds in supporting ecosystem services such as carbon turnover and elemental cycling compared to soft sediments at equivalent depths.

ATLAS showed that greenhouse gas emissions and subsequent climate forcing have been linked to an anomalous weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation over the last ~150 years. Models predict that by 2100, unprecedented changes in temperature and pH will cause large-scale reductions in the spatial distribution of habitat-forming corals and induce a northward shift of deep-sea commercial fish stocks. ATLAS results predict that current area-based management tools in the North Atlantic will become less fit for purpose within the next 20-50 years, and calls for the designation of climate-change resilient Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). ATLAS surveys showed that members of the public are willing to pay to support new management plans that address deep-sea environmental health and quality.

ATLAS models showed that both large-scale atmospheric variability and cold-water coral larval behaviour shape larval dispersal, and profoundly impact connectivity and ultimately our decisions to design MPA networks. ATLAS findings showed the presence of interspecific variability in cold-water coral larvae biology which may partly explain the different population structures and different responses to past climate change. Until more information on larval biology is available, managers should consider low-connectivity assumptions when designing MPA networks.

ATLAS successfully tested and used eDNA methods for screening ocean biodiversity, developed new protocols to extract high-quality DNA and developed low-cost camera systems to rapidly assess deep-sea habitats. It also produced a Vulnerable Marine Ecosystem (VME) Index, a multicriteria assessment for identifying VMEs in the NE Atlantic. ATLAS researchers also developed a Maritime Spatial Planning decision support tool that will allow for the rapid testing of different Blue Growth scenarios in marine areas.

ATLAS research helped directly inform many policy processes including International Council for the Exploration of the Sea's management advice, description of new areas meeting the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s Ecologically or Biologically Significant marine Areas criteria and through scientific inputs during UN negotiations for a new agreement for marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. Moreover, ATLAS submitted formal commentary to several consultations including on deep-sea mining exploitation regulations developed by the International Seabed Authority, the UK Government’s Sustainable Seas Inquiry, and the Scottish Government’s deep-sea marine reserve consultation.

ATLAS developed mutually beneficial relationships with industry with targeted activities with the offshore energy sector including BP, Woodside Energy and Equinor via their roles on the ATLAS Advisory Board. Joint workshops were held to identify and overcome barriers to data-sharing. To facilitate such data sharing, ATLAS developed the ATLAS GeoNode to enable stakeholders to visualise and download geospatial data, thus ensuring that ATLAS data are Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable.

ATLAS research outputs are available to a wide range of end-users through a variety of dissemination channels beyond traditional publications. Notably, ATLAS developed a large portfolio of outreach and dissemination materials (e.g. ATLAS education pack). Innovative methods were employed to promote and enhance ocean literacy, such as classroom activities, augmented reality colouring sheets and a Remotely Operated Vehicle simulator.

Exploitation and Dissemination
The ATLAS project hosted four science-policy panels, produced five Policy Briefs, stimulated 20+ press releases and hosted 23 interdisciplinary workshops (including the educational workshop “Atlantic Adventures with ATLAS”). Final ATLAS results and policy messages were circulated to key stakeholders from scientific, policy and industry communities across the EU, Canada and the USA. ATLAS generated 116 peer-reviewed publications (inc. Nature & Science papers) with 90+ in preparation. Partners participated in 450+ conferences, workshops and events with ATLAS media coverage reaching over 102 million people.
ATLAS research identified principles, crafted educational material, and developed assessment tools, which will continue to have positive socio-economic impacts and wider societal implications. ATLAS advanced the understanding of deep-sea ecosystem functioning, which will inform implementation of sustainable marine management at national, European and global levels. For example, ATLAS data were used to inform the designation of the largest MPA within an Exclusive Economic Zone in the North Atlantic. ATLAS developed open-access tools to assess cumulative human impacts and climate change, which facilitates the evaluation of Blue Growth scenarios and adaptive marine spatial planning. Through industry engagement, ATLAS identified key data-sharing principles to improve business practice and reduce costs. ATLAS data layers in PANGAEA and the ATLAS GeoNode both promote future data sharing. ATLAS educational material remain available for download from ATLAS website. ATLAS contributions to ocean literacy will continue at Dynamic Earth through "Discovering the Deep". This new permanent exhibition was awarded substantial UK National Funding and will feature the history of deep-sea research before using the showing visitors present-day research using the ATLAS project and its findings.
Cova Orejas (IEO), Chief Scientist on board the MEDWAVES cruise, September - October 2016
Mingulay Reef Complex, North-East Atlantic
ATLAS Final General Assembly, Edinburgh (March 2020)