By Murray Roberts, iAtlantic Project Coordinator
On 27 October 2017 the European Union launched a call for projects to assess the status of Atlantic marine ecosystems. A few months earlier, the EU, Brazil and South Africa had signed the Belém Statement on Atlantic Research and Innovation Cooperation. As well as doing excellent basic research, projects needed to meet the goals of the Belém Statement by being policy-relevant and designed to enhance human and technical capacity throughout the Atlantic Ocean.
Easy to talk about in meetings. Hard to achieve in practice.
In 2017 I was coordinating the North Atlantic ATLAS project. Could we build on what we’d learned in ATLAS and expand our scope to create a coordinated ecosystem assessment across the entire Atlantic Ocean? It sounded impossibly ambitious – but worth a try. I pulled people together in Edinburgh as soon as the call came out. This first stage of creating a new project is the most exciting. It’s all about ideas. You can go off in a hundred different directions, but your project must hang together as a whole – and it must work on what the funder’s looking to achieve. Forget this and forget any chance of getting funded.
From the outset we knew we would work on deep and open ocean Atlantic ecosystems, and we’d use a range of regional study areas to focus our efforts. At the end of the project, we wanted to be able to tell policy makers how ecosystems in these areas a doing. In a sense we wanted to give each system a health check. Knowing which ecosystems are under most pressure is essential if we’re going to design long-term strategies to sustainably manage ocean resources.
Sustainable ecosystem management is a holy grail for human societies across the world. For generations we’ve viewed the ocean as an infinite resource, but this view has been shattered by decades of overfishing, pollution and destructive human activities. On top of this the ramifications of global change are now changing the ocean faster than at any point in Earth’s history.
iAtlantic is tackling these issues head on. Our foundation is through work to understand Atlantic basin-scale circulation and improve South Atlantic Ocean monitoring. We have teams mapping the seafloor and using the data to better understand where species occur now and may occur in the future. We are using long-term ecological timeseries to see if certain systems are reaching critical thresholds and what might be driving these changes. We are working both at the deep-seafloor and in the laboratory to understand how multiple stressors are altering how ecosystems work. We are using this new understanding to explore sustainable management scenarios, and we are working closely with our industry partners, policy makers, NGOs and other stakeholders to continually refine and adapt. We need iAtlantic to be as relevant as possible.
It’s a huge task but very rewarding. One of the most rewarding parts of iAtlantic is the work we are doing to raise awareness of deep and open ocean ecosystems and to build human and technical capacities across the Atlantic – south, north, west and east. Do check out our newsletters, the amazing work of our iAtlantic Fellows and our online webinar archive where you can learn more about everything from humpback whale migration to species distribution modelling.
iAtlantic runs from 2019-23. Our work coincides with two of the most significant international policy discussions in living memory. The United Nations is negotiating a new legally binding instrument to manage biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, or the BBNJ treaty for short. iAtlantic’s deep and open ecosystem research programme is directly relevant to these negotiations, and we are researching how scientific information is used to shape this new treaty.
Our work also coincides with the UN’s Climate Conference COP26 being held in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021. It’s essential that the pivotal role of the ocean in Earth’s climate is recognised by the negotiators in Glasgow and that they remember how sensitive many deep and open ocean ecosystem are to climate change. Ahead of the COP26 negotiations iAtlantic co-authored a negotiators’ briefing “Why the Ocean matters in Climate Negotiations” and has proposed several events to the UK and Scottish Governments to take place during COP26.
All this rests on the shoulders of the 171 people who make up the iAtlantic consortium. Our approach as a project is very much like a research expedition at sea. Working at sea it’s very clear how dependent we are on one another. From the Captain on the bridge to the engineers, deck crew, chefs and scientists we all need each other to realise our plans. In iAtlantic we do all we can to create the same close team-working ethos we are enjoying here on iMirabilis2.
iMirabilis2 is our flagship expedition and I’m delighted to be on board. Running an international offshore research expedition during the COVID-19 is a huge achievement by Cova Orejas and her team. I’m very grateful for your passion and dedication!
So, what is iAtlantic? Yes, it’s the work we do, the discoveries we make, the policies we inform but above all it’s the spirit captured here on the iMirabilis2 expedition. It’s all about the people and the bonds we form working together on something we all care about – the future of Our Ocean.