Foras na Mara

International Scientists Map European Seabed Habitats

We Know More About the Moon than the Bottom of Our Oceans

Marine scientists from all over the world gathered in Dublin Castle on the 14th and 15th March to propose a common framework for mapping underwater habitats anywhere in the oceans and to reveal their findings to date as the result of  the MESH project – (Mapping European Seabed Habitats).  

Increasing industrial development in European seas is leading to an increased risk of conflict between users and a greater potential for environmental damage. Yet scientists agree that we probably know more about the surface of the moon than we know about what lives on the bottom of our seas and oceans and where.  

Speaking at the opening of the conference, Prof. Gary Greene, of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in the USA said, “Just as accurate maps of ecological habitats are essential to land-based project planning to assist planning and avoid environmental damage, so detailed marine habitat maps are becoming increasingly important as marine industries such as oil and gas exploration, aggregate extraction, fishing, aquaculture and coastal activities of all kinds place more and more demands on our marine resources.”  

MESH aims not only to produce a detailed and standardised marine habitat atlas for European waters, but to provide a template for all surveys of marine habitats in any part of Europe, making the results instantly comparable.  

“In Ireland, the MESH techniques for marine habitat mapping have been developed within the Irish National Seabed Survey Programme and within INFOMAR -  the successor project to map inshore waters” said Marine Institute Chief Executive Dr. Peter Heffernan in his welcoming address to the Conference. “The Marine Institute has been deeply involved with both of these projects, along with a number of partners including the Geological Survey of Ireland. Seabed habitat mapping features prominently as a policy support tool in Sea Change – the Marine Knowledge and Information Strategy 2007 – 2013.”  

You can visit the MESH website on    www.searchmesh.net    

MESH has been undertaken by an international consortium of 12 partners across the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium and France and is funded under the EU INTERREG IIIB fund. It began in the spring of 2004 and is due to complete this year producing a range of ground-breaking maps and reports, including a web-delivered geographic information system (GIS) showing the habitat maps, templates for future marine mapping projects with protocols and standards, a report describing case histories of habitat mapping, and a stakeholder database.   

Many cutting-edge underwater survey techniques have been tested and reviewed by MESH for habitat mapping, including satellite remote sensing, aerial photography, high resolution acoustic echo sounders, deep sea video and remotely operated vehicles, divers and grab sampling.  Their findings show the best way to use techniques for habitat mapping, essential for protection of Special Areas of Conservation and are a critical step towards an ecosystem approach to holistic resource management.   

One of the most exciting developments of MESH will be the delivery of the MESH Guidance, a web-based interactive multimedia document that will take the reader, be they an expert mapper or not, through the processes and decisions required to design, carryout and interpret a marine survey.     

The Guidance will be launched in June 2007 and will be held on the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) website.  Tools and applications to assist with all the processes of habitat mapping will be available for free download.  This part of the MESH project is being coordinated through the Marine Institute and incorporates contributions from the MESH partners.  

Sea Change  

Provision of accurate marine habitat maps is vital information to the Marine Institute’s recently announced Sea Change programme of marine research and development, which aims to drive the development of the marine sector as a dynamic element of Ireland’s knowledge economy. It uses a series of carefully calculated possible scenarios for Ireland by the year 2020 to define global market opportunities linked to the development of marine technologies and resources, as well as practical costed action plans and clearly defined objectives regarding how those opportunities might be achieved.

Sea Change also highlights the need for a shift away from the traditional view of the sector as one primarily associated with the harvesting of food, and points towards a wide variety of market-led opportunities in sustainable energy, functional food products, transport, technology and environmental well-being. Mapping of our marine resources are an integral key to this.    

The Marine Institute was created under the Marine Institute Act in 1991 to “undertake, to co-ordinate, to promote and to assist” in the development of marine research and development in Ireland. Since its early days in Harcourt Street Dublin, it has grown into an internationally respected science body with over 200 staff, two purpose-built vessels – RV Celtic Explorer and RV Celtic Voyager, a research facility near Newport, Co. Mayo and now a brand new headquarters and laboratory on the shores of Galway Bay.