What lives beneath? Mapping Seabed Habitats in North West Europe

Explorers of Europe's underwater world gathered at the Marine Institute, Galway this week as part of a programme to create the first seabed habitat maps for north-west Europe. As seabed habitats come under mounting pressures from a multitude of users, 12 partners in an INTERREG IIIB funded programme - Mapping European Seabed Habitats (MESH)  - aim to create new seabed habitat maps, collate existing data, and develop predictive modelling for unmapped areas. 

The seas around north-west Europe support a wide range of seabed habitats and rich biodiversity. They provide important food resources (fish, shellfish), contribute to essential ecosystem functioning (such as nutrient recycling) and yield valuable natural resources (oil, gas, aggregates). In addition the seabed is subject to increasing pressures from new developments, such as for renewable energy (e.g. wind-farms) and coastal developments for leisure activities and coastal defences.

Growing pressures on our seas and coasts can lead to conflict between users and potential for degradation of the marine environment and the essential physical, chemical and biological processes that maintain our marine ecosystem.

"MESH aims to answer questions about seabed habitats from a wide range of stakeholders. The answers we will provide will allow managers and policy makers to make more informed decisions on how best to protect and conserve our natural resources for future generation. We can't protect our marine resources until we know what's there," says Fiona Fitzpatrick, Seabed Survey Manager, Marine Institute.

Information gathered on seabed and intertidal habitats around Europe to date has been patchy and poorly collated.  This project will unify seabed mapping across Europe and provide a baseline for marine habitat mapping worldwide. The partner organisations bring a wide variety of skills in different areas such as multibeam acoustic seabed mapping, lasar airborne sensors, and remote operated vehicles with cameras and video recording equipment. 

Ireland brings unique experience of seabed mapping and marine data management to the group. David Connor, Chair of the ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Seas) Working Group on Marine Habitat Mapping (WGMHM), and project manager for the MESH project says:  "The Irish National Seabed Survey reveals how Ireland has led the way in Europe in undertaking a comprehensive national survey of its waters. The scope and quality of this programme has been outstanding, particularly as the survey has progressed in latter years to include a greater element of much needed ecological measurements. As such Ireland's aim to provide a complete coverage of national waters using the latest mapping techniques has been an inspiration for many other ICES countries. The WGMHM has followed with great interest the progress of the Irish National Seabed Survey as it heads towards the all important Phase 2 for its inshore waters; this region is likely to prove the most important as it is subject to many pressures from a range of marine users which need to be balanced in these complex inshore regions to achieve sustainable development and good ecosystem quality."

The Galway meeting, hosted by the Marine Institute 24-27th May, is attended by 35 European and internationally recognised experts in marine surveys and habitat mapping. The group visited Ireland's national research vessels, the RV Celtic Explorer and the RV Celtic Voyager and tomorrow (Friday), they visit Killary Harbour to give insight into how to approach mapping the seabed in a Fjord. Killary Harbour will be mapped later this year in an effort to better understand the movement of harmful algal blooms in the harbour. This is part of a joint NUI Galway/Marine Institute project called BOHAB to develop early warning systems for fish and shellfish producers.

The MESH partners are keen to create awareness of the project in order to get input from as many stakeholders as possible as to what questions they need answered about the ocean. To learn more about the project and work carried out to date visit www.searchmesh.net

 or contact Fiona Fitzpatrick, Marine Institute Galway email fiona.fitzpatrick@marine.ie