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Five ocean habitats that improve our life on land
Photo: Jayne Jenkins
People’s life on land depends on the health of our ocean, whether we live in the coastal zone or further inland.
Healthy ocean habitats support people’s lives and livelihoods – from providing jobs and food security to reducing the impact of storm surges and regulating the global climate. Within the European seas alone, €485 billion is generated from maritime activities and 7 million people have jobs connected to the sea.
Marine ecosystems that support human life can be found both in shallow waters of national shores, and in the high seas (Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction).
However, many of the ocean’s benefits to people are at risk. Marine and coastal ecosystems are being lost and degraded at an alarming rate through human activities like pollution, over-exploitation and the introduction of invasive species.
Ecosystem restoration is crucial, as part of wider sustainable use, to tackling this degradation and increasing habitat resilience, particularly in the face of rapidly advancing climate change.
This and next year will see the launch of three UN Decades - the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, and the UN Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is fitting because the three are intrinsically connected: achieving the SDGs relies on the restoration of ecosystems, including those within our ocean.
One example of a marine ecosystem restoration project is MERCES – Marine Ecosystem Restoration in Changing European Seas. MERCES is a first-of-its-kind project launched by the European Commission and funded through the European Union’s Horizon 2020. Beginning in 2016, this multi-disciplinary, multi-national collaboration works to restore degraded marine ecosystems for 35 focal species in over 120 sites across Europe, helping to create healthy seas for people and planet.
Here’s how restoring five often overlooked temperate European ocean habitats could improve our life on land:
- Seagrasses are marine flowering plants found in shallow waters along the coasts of every continent except Antarctica, but almost 30% are estimated to have been lost due to human activity. Protecting and restoring these underwater meadows is crucial: they provide nurseries for fish, protect coasts from storms and floods, and contribute to carbon sequestration. Seagrass meadows cover just 0.1 per cent of the ocean floor, but are responsible for more than 10 per cent of carbon buried annually in ocean sediments.
- Growing mostly on rocky substrate, these habitat-building brown macroalgae are mostly found in the Northern Hemisphere and temperate regions, such as the Mediterranean. However, algal forests are rapidly disappearing. Restoration can help safeguard the crucial services that algal forests offer, including regulating nutrients and contributing to food security by providing feeding and nursery grounds for fish.
- Gorgonians are a soft coral usually found on the rocky bottom of warm and shallow water, for example in the Mediterranean. Some gorgonian species are now listed as Critically Endangered. Restoring gorgonian habitats helps to maintain a healthy ocean’s balance: they are a crucial part of the food-web, make a positive contribution to species diversity in an area, and offer opportunities for ecotourism as gorgonians are often enjoyed by divers.
- A particular type of algae, kelp forests grow in colder, shallow and clear waters as they require sunlight to grow, sometimes by as much as two feet a day. This dynamic, resilient habitat provides a home for invertebrates, fish, and birds, but is threatened by human activities such as pollution and over-fishing. Restoring kelp forests helps to mitigate climate change and can also provide coastal protection, for example by reducing wave flow. In Norway, kelp forests are commercially harvested for use in medicine, food, industrial products, animal feed and fertiliser.
- Cold-water corals can be found from tropical to polar regions, in the shallow and deep seas. They are fragile and extremely slow-growing, with some reefs being tens of thousands of years old, making them particularly vulnerable to disturbance and environmental change like deep-water trawling and ocean acidification. Like other deep-sea habitats, cold-water corals support many endemic species and are important in nutrient cycling. Restoring cold-water corals could also contribute to our health and wellbeing due to their potential for new bio-medical resources.
Marine ecosystems, be they those we may see on the coastline or those deep or far out in the ocean that most of us will never see at all, are essential to our daily lives on land. The next ten years are key for tackling the global nature crisis, and restoring marine ecosystems will be a crucial part of that work. Securing healthy ocean habitats for the future will be essential if we are to maintain their multiple benefits to us all.