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New Research Projects Aim to Build a Sustainable Future for the Marine Economy

Six new research projects that aim to build a sustainable future for the marine environment and those whose livelihoods depend on it were announced today.

Researchers have received a share of £9.2 million from UK Research and Innovation to investigate how to safeguard the marine and coastal economy while protecting sea ecosystems.

The marine economy is worth £48 billion, but coastal communities are facing increased pressures from climate change, threats to marine wildlife, and economic challenges.

One team of multi-disciplinary researchers will investigate how and where meadows of seagrass can be restored in UK coastal waters. Seagrass is important in supporting marine wildlife, capturing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and improving the productivity of fisheries. However, many seagrass meadows have been destroyed in recent years, caused by disease, disturbance, and pollution.

Another project will study how the UK can better protect coastal communities from flooding and coastal erosion. Researchers will investigate how 'green sea defences,' that work with nature, can provide more sustainable protection than the UK's current method of flood and erosion prevention using traditional hard defences such as sea walls.

The five-year research programme, called the Sustainable Management of UK Marine Resources, is supported by the Strategic Priorities Fund which fosters high-quality multi and inter-disciplinary research and innovation.

Funding for the projects has been delivered by two UKRI research councils:

  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • In partnership with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Marine Scotland.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said:

"Coastal communities, marine habitats and wildlife across the UK are all facing increased pressure from the impacts of climate change.

"Whether looking at the role of seagrasses to capture carbon or identifying behaviour changes to create a sustainable future, this latest investment from UKRI will further develop our understanding of the role nature can play in tackling the biggest challenge of our generation."

Professor Alison Park, Executive Chair of ESRC, said:

"Climate change poses risks and challenges for people and coastal economies. This comes on top of existing vulnerabilities, for example having older or more transient populations, low employment and high work seasonality, and physical isolation and poor transport links.

"These interdisciplinary research projects will provide a better understanding of how to support a viable, sustainable future for coastal communities and those who earn a living from the marine economy, with extensive stakeholder engagement to ensure they provide a wide range of potential solutions."

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, Executive Chair of NERC, said:

"Millions of people in the UK depend on marine biodiversity for their livelihoods but climate change, over-fishing and pollution are impacting coastal environments. We are also increasingly relying on the seas for resources, with strong growth in the renewable energy and aquaculture sectors.

"This research will help to build our understanding of how we can effectively protect the marine economy and its ecosystems."

"Climate change is already impacting ecosystems in our waters and livelihoods in coastal communities.

"These UK Government funded research projects will help support a sustainable future for Scotland's and the wider UK's marine economy - which is crucial for jobs, businesses and livelihoods.

"As we prepare to host COP26 in Glasgow, building back greener from the pandemic is a UK Government priority and I'm pleased to see so much Scottish expertise - including from the fisheries sector - involved in these projects."

Scottish Government Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon said:

"This research not only fits in with the Scottish Government's work to address the twin challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change, but it will also help develop our understanding of how we can sustainably grow our coastal communities and marine sectors through the Blue Economy.

"While the research will bring benefits across the UK I am pleased that Scottish scientists will be involved in two projects which will look at using marine spatial planning to address the effects of climate change, and to understand the different values marine resources have in the UK, with Shetland as a case study."

The research adds to UKRI's long tradition of investing in cutting-edge research and innovation to understand, tackle and mitigate the effects of climate change. In the year the UK hosts the UN COP26 summit in November, UKRI will use its role as a steward of the research and innovation system to bring our communities together to create sustainable and resilient solutions and encourage new behaviours and new ways of living that enable the UK to reach net zero by 2050.

Project summaries

Recovery of Seagrass For Ocean Wealth UK (ReSOW UK)
Led by Dr Claire Evans, National Oceanography Centre

The UK Government has recognised the need for Nature Based Solutions to climate change to form a significant component of the UKs target of reaching Net Zero emissions by 2050. Seagrass meadows create a highly efficient and long-term store of carbon in their marine sediments, and can improve support for fisheries productivity through enhanced fish nursery habitat for important species, such as the Atlantic Cod.

The ReSOW UK project will provide evidence and strategic vision for ecological renewal. The project will facilitate informed management and restoration of seagrass for sustainable social, environmental and economic net gains for the UK. ReSOW UK brings together principal scientists, political bodies and NGOs concerned with seagrass management and restoration in the UK.

Project partners: Cardiff University, Swansea University, University of Stirling, Natural Resources Wales, Environment Agency, Marine Management Organisation, Global Ocean Accounts Partnership, 14CHRONO Centre for Climate, the Environment and Chronology, Natural England, LIFE Recreation ReMEDIES project (Reducing and Mitigating Erosion and Disturbance Impacts on affecting the Seabed).

Sustainable development and resilience of UK coastal communities
Led by Dr Louisa Evans, University of Exeter

The climate emergency, Brexit and Covid-19 are causing unprecedented change in coastal communities. ROCC will reveal how the resilience of marine resource-users to environmental, regulatory and socio-cultural change can be strengthened, while also improving the wellbeing of coastal communities and the health of the marine environment.

Our research will be the first to develop a nexus perspective on resilience, wellbeing and sustainability to systematically identify synergies and support UK practitioners and policy-makers to deliver these three objectives together. The research will focus on diverse marine sectors in Devon and Cornwall to develop evidence, tools and partnerships applicable to the rest of the UK.

Project partners: Marine Management Organisation, Cornwall Rural Community Charity, Cornwall Council's Strategic Historic Environment team, Devon Maritime Forum, Sole of Discretion, Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

Resilient coasts: optimising co-benefit solutions (Co-Opt)
Led by Dr Laurent Amoudry, National Oceanography Centre

Coastal flooding was the second highest risk after pandemic flu on the UK government's risk register in 2017. Over 1.8 million homes are at risk of coastal flooding and erosion in England alone.

Coastal hazards will be increasing over the next century primarily driven by unavoidable sea level rise. It is essential to ensure that UK coasts are managed so that coastal protection is resilient to future climate. Protecting the coast by maintaining hard 'grey' defences in all locations currently planned is unlikely to be cost-effective. Sustainable coastal management and adaptation will therefore require a broader range of actions, and greater use of softer 'green' solutions that work with nature, are multifunctional, and can deliver additional benefits, including contributing to the achievement of net zero.

The overall aim of the Co-Opt project is to develop a new integrated and interdisciplinary system-based framework that will effectively support the required transition from hard 'grey' defences to softer 'green' solutions in coastal and shoreline management.

Project Partners: Cranfield University, University of Liverpool, University of St Andrews, USGS, Deltares, Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, NatureScot, North West and North Wales Coastal Group, and the Fife Coast and Countryside Trust.

Pyramids of Life: Working with nature for a sustainable future
Led by Dr Jon Pitchford, University of York

Our planet's natural resources face unsustainable demands and there is evidence that current management approaches are failing to move resource use towards a sustainable future. A step-change is needed, but such a change must align with consumer demand, real world fishing practicalities, and with sustainable national policies. The 'Pyramids of Life' approach combines our understanding of marine ecosystem function and human needs and behaviours. The aim is to enhance sustainability in fisheries management and the marketing of fishery products while conserving our diverse ecosystems.

Researchers will map the current patterns of exploitation of marine fish stocks to the ecological and socio-economic pyramids driving stakeholders and consumers, and identify behavioural changes compatible with restoring the system to a more natural, resilient, productive and socio-economically equitable state.

Project partners: Cefas; Universities of East Anglia, Essex, Roehampton and York; Kent and Essex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority; National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations; Scottish Pelagic Fishermen's Organisation; Seafish; Waitrose.

Marine Spatial Planning Addressing Climate Effects
Led by Dr Ana de Moura Queiros, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

MSPACE is a highly integrated, multidisciplinary project co-developed to drive forward the capability of the four UK nations in designing and implementing climate-smart marine spatial plans (MSP).

MSPACE is underpinned by a vast catalogue of state-of-the-art marine climate change modelling projections for the environment, species and habitats, uniquely available to the consortium through existing expertise and partnerships, along with world leading modelling spatial meta-analysis methods. MSPACE will also capitalize on key partnerships with the UK policy and industry communities with whom a co-developed report will be delivered on the vulnerabilities and opportunities that climate change presents to the near-term spatial management of the fisheries, aquaculture and marine conservation sectors across the UK Exclusive Economic Zone.

Project partners: University of Essex, University of Bradford, Heriot-Watt University, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, Marine Scotland - directorate of the Scottish Government, The Marine Biological Association, Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership, Marine Management Organisation, Natural Resources Wales, The Seaweed Alliance, National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, Scottish Pelagic Fishermen's Association, Ørsted, Aquamaps.

Integrating diverse values into the sustainable management of marine resources in the UK
Led by Professor Stephen Fletcher, University of Portsmouth

The goal of the project is to generate an enduring step-change in the transdisciplinary capability of the UK marine policy stakeholder and research community to identify and incorporate more diverse voices and values into the sustainable management of the UK's marine resources.

Researchers will drive an innovative and creative agenda of transformational research that both significantly advances our understanding of values-based marine management and which provides actionable tools and approaches that can feed directly into contemporary marine management practice in the UK.

The research will take place in Portsmouth and Newhaven, the Upper Severn Estuary and the Shetland Islands.

Project partners: University of Greenwich, Cardiff University, University of Highlands and Islands, University College London, University of Liverpool, Marine Biological Association, Howell Marine Consulting, New Economics Foundation, Ocean Conservation Trust, Marine Conservation Society and Company of Makers.

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