From the bobbing, brackish surface water to the broad-ranging benthic organisms 180 foot below on the seafloor, the Baltic Sea, as per other aquatic areas under ICES mandate, is a body of water comprised of countless interrelated ecosystem elements. Constituting the Gulf of Bothnia, Gulf of Finland, and Gulf of Riga towards its northeast and eastern boundaries, the sea arches southwards and drains into the Kattegat Sea via the Danish Straits, interacting with 8,000 kilometres of coastline and nine countries' worth of human enterprise along the way.
It's these Baltic Sea coastal states of the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM) that are working together as part of the BALTFIMPA project to align themselves with the conservation targets of their respectively designated Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), with a two-day Stakeholder Conference hosted by the ICES Secretariat in late March, entitled 'Sustainable Fisheries for a Healthier Baltic Sea', providing the stage for BALTFIMPA'S vision to be further realized.
Marine Protected Areas (or MPAs) are special places in the marine environment set aside across the world to protect sensitive habitats, endangered species, and cultural heritage sites. The central question of BALTFIMPA is "how can fisheries management contribute to achieving conservation objectives of marine protected areas?"
BALTFIMPA is the latest example of ICES marine and fisheries science being used to support decision-making in MPAs. The organization previously had advisory roles in the EMPAS (Environmentally Sound Fishery Management in Protected Areas), FIMPAS (Fisheries Measures in Protected Areas), and Dogger Bank ventures. In terms of BALTFIMPA, ICES has shared scientific experience and knowledge through a peer review of a Generic Tool – a programme intended for managers to identify potential interactions between sensitive habitats/species and fishing gears in MPAs.
ICES Professional Officer Anne Cooper explained what ICES brings to the table in this respect. "Our experience in giving advice to other MPA projects and our work on Marine Spatial Planning, vulnerable marine ecosystems as well as our accomplishments on the science of fish behavior, gear technology, and integrated ecosystem assessments make us an obvious piece of the puzzle for ventures such as this."
Although the issue had been on the organization's radar beforehand, the story of ICES involvement in Marine Protected Areas started in 2006 when the German government filed a request to ICES for information on fisheries management in offshore designated MPAs as part of the European Union's Birds and Habitats Directives. For the resulting EMPAS, ICES collaborated with the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation to gather scientific data and information for developing management measures to conserve benthic habitats of sandbanks and reefs as well as endangered species of invertebrates, fishes, seabirds and mammals affected by ongoing fishing activities.
After the end of the research-based EMPAS in 2008, the Netherlands took up the challenge and asked ICES for scientific advice on protective measures across areas Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of the Dutch North Sea, triggering the start of the FIMPAS project . In more recent years, a three-way agreement between the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany was drawn up on the preservation of habitat type 1110 (sand beds slightly but permanently covered in seawater) across North Sea sandbank the Dogger Bank, a submerged 18,000 km² expanse off the east UK shore home to a surprising plethora of biodiversity. ICES in-depth science on everything from fish behavior and gear technology to integrated ecosystem assessments and designing MPA networks around climate change nuances was again called for.
BALTFIMPA has seen the need for a collective cooperation, bringing together an ensemble of policy-makers, conservation organizations, representatives from the fishing industry, and academic researchers to address key issues, solicit valuable input, and demonstrate the fisheries management decisions tools being developed by the project. And, as Anne Cooper added, the effort has been worthwhile.
"Working with HELCOM on the BALTFIMPA project has been a rewarding experience for ICES. The diversity of stakeholder interests and the scientific needs of MPA managers represented in these forums inform the future work and perspective of ICES."
Photo courtesy of Havforskningsinstituttet (The Institute of Marine Research), Bergen, Norway