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Making the science integral: ICES reviews MSFD Descriptors

ICES has reviewed and delivered technical guidance to the EC for four MSFD descriptors: D3 (commercial seafood and shellfish), D4 (foodwebs), D6 (seafloor integrity) and D11 (energy, with underwater noise). Results of the D6 review are highlighted here.
Published: 7 October 2014

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​More than 70% of the Earth's surface is seafloor and this vast area accommodates an abundance of different habitats and associated species. Given the pending threats upon the critical goods and services the seafloor provides, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) addresses seafloor integrity in its Descriptor 6. Good environmental status (GES) will be achieved when seafloor integrity is at a level that ensures that the structure and functions of the ecosystems are safeguarded and benthic ecosystems, in particular, are not adversely affected.

Chaired by Jake Rice, Canada, ICES Workshop on guidance for the review of MSFD decision Descriptor 6 (ICES WKGMSFDD6) welcomed 27 participants from 15 countries, representing governments, various management bodies, stakeholders, and NGOs. "It was a positive makeup. We had a real diversity of backgrounds; people with different skills in MSFD implementation and experts in assessing seafloor integrity. It did make it harder to find consensus but it was then much stronger than if everybody came in with the same viewpoint."

Scientific guidance

In 2010, ICES/JRC 2010 Task Group 6, outlined the important attributes that should be taken into consideration to achieve GES for Descriptor 6, "What we produced in 2010 was a large science report and the policy makers produced something more concise. Had the key scientific findings been captured in the outcome of that process?"

The principal goal of the recent ICES WKGMSFDD6 was to simplify guidance for ongoing indicator development and use these to set targets for management (i.e. GES boundaries and reference points). Participants looked at the 2010 MSFD Decision to assess whether current guidance provides scientifically sound assessments of seafloor integrity.

Introducing functionality and recoverability 

It was felt that many important seafloor attributes had been lost in the policy and implementation process, thus compromising the ability to assess seafloor integrity. The present criteria in the Decision should be revised into two new criteria,​​ Functionality and Recoverability, which are more closely related to the resilience and recovery potential of the seafloor. Participants felt this approach would simplify the existing Decision without requiring additional monitoring from most Member Countries.

To ensure seafloor resilience, the reference points of indicators should best reflect possible tipping points, i.e. levels of perturbation at which the decline of the system functionality begins to accelerate. Recoverability needs to be considered in the spatial context within which a disturbed area is located (i.e. connectivity between impacted and non-impacted sites in the region). For both criteria (Functionality and Recoverability), information on sensitivity and pressures need to be considered together to evaluate overall impact. Pressure indicators alone will result in an incomplete assessment. Natural disturbances occur on the seafloor, and this background needs to be considered in assessments, relative to the sensitivity of the seafloor habitat(s) and anthropogenic pressures.

Scientific guidance will be required in prioritizing functions to be assessed under each criteria, as well as choosing indicators and establishing GES boundaries for seafloor integrity (with reference points and targets). This will be required in any potential revisions of the Decision and in its implementation by Regional Sea Conventions (RSCs) and Member States. ​

Building on existing work 

A sizable body of scientific knowledge has already been consolidated in the current D6 workshop report and ICES/JRC 2010 Task Group 6 report. Appropriate experts building on this foundation can make rapid progress on finalizing the necessary guidance.

Rice is confident that, "If Member States choose to take our advice and act on it, by the end of 2016, we will be able to identify appropriate GES boundaries based on indicators being developed".

ICES advise on review of MSFD descriptors

ICES hosted three MSFD descriptor review workshops during September, specifially looking at D3(commercial seafood and shellfish), D4 (marine food webs), and D6 (seafloor integrity). As a result of the these workshops, ICES has delivered technical guidance to the European Commission. You can find this technical advice by following the appropriate link on the right or by opening the ICES latest advice page​

Read the workshop reports:

MSFD Descriptor 3​

MSFD Descriptor 4

MSFD Descriptor 6​​


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Key regional specific bioengineering organisms can be used as indicators of functionality.​The above picture illustrates the density of dead and surfaced bivalves on a sandy seafloor habitat in the northern Baltic Sea. They play a pivitol role in bentho-pelagic coupling, nutrient regeneration, and as facilitators of the surrounding community. ​Bivalve size is a fundamental trait and an important driver of ecosystem functions such as productivity and nutrient cycling.  Photo Alf Norkko.

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Making the science integral: ICES reviews MSFD Descriptors

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