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Subjects under spotlight at the ASC

The Arctic and microplastics among the hot scientific topics as the Annual Science Conference (ASC) in Riga draws near.
Published: 1 September 2016

​​​​​​​​​From the role of the smallest zooplankton to the economics of human behaviour in relation to fisheries management, the 2016 instalment of ICES flagship event is set to deliver the latest in marine science and research across a spectrum of topics. Eighteen theme sessions and a range of open sessions on important areas form the bedrock of the conference, which heads across the Baltic to Latvia and its capital Riga for the very first time.

While the whole programme for the five-day event will showcase important work and host much lively discussion, there are several key fields in which ICES operates which are either emerging or of strategic interest. As well as integrated ecosystem assessments and the combining of humanities and social sciences into ecosystem management, two of these this year are the Arctic and microplastics in the ocean.

All things Arctic

Major changes in the marine environment at high latitudes are already occurring due to climate change and increased human activity, leading to productivity increases, losses and gains of species, and changes in foodweb structure – all of which makes research in the field a priority for ICES.

This is evident at the conference, where ICES is joining forces with the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), a working group of the Arctic Council, and the Horizon 2020 project EU-PolarNet to stage Theme Session P – Arctic ecosystem services: challenges and opportunities. Covering ecosystem components from seafloor life and habitats to marine mammals, ocean acidification, and the influence of human pressures, the forum will look at current research, gaps in knowledge and emerging issues. One particularly important issue is the major changes in the Arctic physico-chemical environment arising from decreasing sea-ice cover and thickness, more freshwater from melting glaciers and ice caps such as the Greenland ice sheet, and increasing acidification from atmospheric carbon dioxide uptake. These patterns will have consequences for production, species composition and interactions, and thus ecosystem services such as fisheries.

Following this, a half-day stakeholder workshop​ will be held to discuss and identify needs for Arctic research on marine issues, based on the presentations in the session. Sponsored by AMAP and EU-PolarNet, the workshop is part of the project's work to promote transatlantic research between EU countries and the USA and Canada. Assembling stakeholders to discuss needs and create dialogue is one aspect of this, required by EU-PolarNet for development of an Integrated European Polar Research Programme and associated implementation plan.

Janet Pawlak, Deputy Executive Secretary of AMAP, explained the rationale behind the back-to-back conference sessions.

"As ICES and the fisheries and marine research communities associated with it are important stakeholders in relation to marine ecosystems and ecosystem services, AMAP and EU-PolarNet decided that it would be very advantageous to hold the marine stakeholder workshop in association with ICES Annual Science Conference, given the broad range and depth of stakeholders attending this conference. "

"The research needs for a better understanding of Arctic marine ecosystems and ecosystem services, especially living marine resources, discussed and identified during this workshop will be reported to the European Commission and used by EU-PolarNet in the elaboration of the European polar research programme. "

Major micro issue

Microplastics is another area of rising relevance. ​The accumulation of plastic litter in the environment has been a growing concern ever since the rise in plastics production. This waste comes from two primary sources: industrially-manufactured larger items – or macroplastics, and smaller items under five millimetres – or microplastics – used to make abrasives. However, it is the breakdown of everyday object such as bottles, bags, and textiles into tiny fragments which dominates the higher number of small plastic particles.

Studies have shown how ubiquitous microplastics are across marine habitats as well as the uptake of these particles by the animals and plants. In this way microplastics are entering foodwebs, meaning they may pass to higher trophic levels and potentially end up in human food. Additionally, these materials can accumulate organic pollutants and may act as carriers for the dispersal of toxic mircoorganisms.

Given the relatively recent emergence of research in this field, there are a lack of methodologies through which to quantify and qualify plastic particles from sediment, animals and plants, and the water column.

Plastic projects

Taking place on the Wednesday of the ASC, an open session hosted by ICES and the Joint Programming Initiative Healthy and Productive Seas and Oceans (JPI Oceans) will set the stage for the discussion of all things on this topic. Established in 2011, JPI Oceans is a strategic platform, open up to all EU Member States and Associated Countries who invest in marine and maritime research. One aspect of its work has involved defining a pilot action for quality controlling and assuring current microplastic assessment methods, with the aim of developing research approaches and protocols and ultimately data. These efforts also seek to explore the risk factor, how plastic particles are taken up and passed through the foodweb.

The session will feature four projects which tackle these challenges, covering topics like baseline definitions, ecotoxicological effects of microplastics on marine organisms, and the effects of weathering of microplastics. 

The stakeholder workshop following the Arctic theme session is open to all conference attendees. Contact the organizers if you are interested in participating.

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Subjects under spotlight at the ASC

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