A transparent and accessible ocean ensures access to ocean data and information technologies, providing capacity to inform decisions for all nations, stakeholders, and citizens. The work of ICES Working Group on Deep-water Ecology (WGDEC) contributes to this through the collation of vital datasets on Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VME) to support improved understanding of their distribution across the North Atlantic and highlight areas for protection. These data are stored within ICES VME database and distributed through the VME portal.
Each year, WGDEC issues a data call to the 20 ICES member states, requesting observations of VMEs (such as cold-water coral reefs, or deep-sea sponge aggregations) and VME indicators (such as fragments of coral from long lines, or sponge bycatch from commercial fishing trawls). These observations come from across the North Atlantic, including the exclusive economic zones of ICES member countries and from areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ).
The VME database is used to provide annual advice to the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission on VMEs that require protection from bottom fishing activities that might damage them. Currently, in the Northeast Atlantic ABNJ there are 13 closures to bottom fishing that have been supported by ICES advice. These closures protect VMEs on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge around seamounts and on offshore banks to the west of Scotland. WGDEC is working to develop methods to provide an assessment of the confidence that a VME is present when only data on indicators (such as a small sample of a coral) are available.
The same information underpinning this advice, including confidence in VME presence, is also made available through the VME portal where gridded records can be viewed through an online map or downloaded at their full spatial resolution. WGDEC strive for this information to be publicly accessible and currently approximately 88% of the more than 50,000 records in the database are freely available to download, with the others requiring permission from the data provider.
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Coral garden VME habitat. © SeaRover survey / Ireland Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine / EU European Maritime and Fisheries Fund / INFOMAR.