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summaries - sixth MARBENA e-conference

Summary of discussions on Session 1: Biodiversity Action Plan for Fish - fishstock biodiversity

By Einar Eg Nielsen and Uwe Piatkowski

The session was introduced by Einar Eg Nielsen, who outlined current knowledge on biodiversity in fish-stocks and threats to fish-stock biodiversity such as over-fishing and global warming. The level of knowledge is sufficient to know that we should take action to preserve biodiversity in exploited fish stocks. The future challenge will be to formulate appropriate management actions for the preservation of genetic diversity. This will require consensus on what it is we are trying to preserve (e.g. alleles, traits, population structure) and some means of assessing genetic "status". The introduction was ended by a series of questions regarding fish stock biodiversity, which opened the floor for discussion.

The introduction was followed by a discussion on the role of modeling in fish ecology and management of fish-stock biodiversity. This discussion was spawned by a contribution suggesting that modelling of fish stock abundance is too complex to give any good predictions, since the fish are a part of a large and multifaceted ecosystem. Other contributions focused on the quality of data fed to the fisheries models. There were concerns regarding the reliability of official catch statistics and data from scientific surveys on diminishing populations. There was a general consensus that this would lead to uncertain and in some instances wrong predictions from the models. A phenomenon termed “rubbish in – rubbish out”. It was also suggested to abandon the current way of modelling by picking up on the methods applied in metrology and bioinformatics, so-called inferential models. These models do not rely on pure mathematics, but more pattern recognition and case based reasoning by employing neural networks and artificial intelligence.

Finally, it was discussed whether there was a need for a paradigm shift abandoning modelling of fish stock abundance as a tool for managing fish-stock biodiversity. One possibility would be to use protected zones/marine reserves instead. These areas could at the same time serve as general reference points for marine biodiversity. The application of marine reserves as a tool for managing marine biodiversity, however, needs a much more co-ordinated global fishing effort to be effective.

Summary of discussions on Session 2: Biodiversity Action Plan for Fish – non-target species biodiversity

by Michel Kaiser, Melanie C.V. Austen and Henn Ojaveer

A priority identified during the forum was the need to search for methods that might enable the determination of any broader effects of fishing on ecosystem functioning. An examination of ecosystem function moves away from a species by species approach to the examination of the effects of fishing and implies that groups of species or taxa perform similar roles or functions within the ecosystem. The majority of species compose a minor proportion of the total abundance or biomass of most assemblages. As a consequence the loss or replacement of a proportion of the less common species may result in no net change in ecosystem functioning. There was some disagreement with this proposition and it was felt by some that our understanding of the links between loss of biodiversity and loss of ecosystem functioning were insufficiently robust at present based on limited and simplistic mesocosm manipulations of species richness. As a result, the true ecological importance of non-target species was unknown and hence it is not possible to imply ecological redundancy based on our current knowledge. In such circumstances, the use of the precautionary principle was advocated in terms of management measures. However, if assemblages are resilient to the loss of a certain proportion of species, the critical question remains ‘the loss of how many species results in an alteration of ecosystem function?’ and does this have wider consequences for human society? While most contributors appreciated the need or desirability to study the ecological role of individual species, the practicality of such an undertaking, and current funding constraints, dictate that monitoring of the effectiveness of BAP needs a two pronged approach: detailed but targeted studies to understand smaller-scale ecological issues in conjunction with a wide-scale uniform effort in the assessment of more fundamental community characteristics. The discussion also focussed on the BAP research priorities in terms of the level at which they are aimed. Some thought that these should have a stronger emphasis on research to understand the ecological importance of different organisms and biodiversity in general and their relationship to ecosystem maintenance and the sustainability of the ecosystem itself (including the fisheries). Research priorities that focus on ‘biodiversity indicators of ecosystem health’ would address this requirement. The current research priorities of the BAP for Fisheries seem biased towards the ‘topdown’ (predatory fish removal) effects rather than considering the implications of fishing at all trophic levels (from marine mammals down to the benthos). The outcome of this ‘fisheries’ approach to the non-target species BAP means that the research priorities are focussed on the implementation or development of technical or mechanical measures to reduce adverse effects. This is of concern particularly given the lack of fundamental knowledge with regard to non-target species in marine ecosystems. Moreover, there are discrepancies in the level of knowledge for different European seas, with wide variation in the complexity of different systems (e.g. The Baltic c.f. The Mediterranean).

There was some consensus that fishing capacity and fishing effort (amount of time spent fishing) should be matched with the available resources (fish) as this will inevitably reduce the impact of fishing on non-target species. Yet the failure to implement appropriate effort reductions proposed over the last 20 years of CFP has resulted in the current situation of declining stocks and fleet overcapacity. Matching capacity and fishing effort with the available resource will be extremely painful for the fishing industry in the short to medium term. It was considered that the reality of unpalatable economic hardship has resulted in the focus on technical measures in the BAP. Technical measures are often easier to implement than an overall reduction in fishing effort and fulfil the requirement for some (any) remedial action to be effected, even if it means that the real problem is not addressed. The BAP for Fisheries has made positive steps towards a consideration of the wider effects of fishing on the marine environment but adequate monitoring will be needed to determine the success of any resulting initiatives, which will require the clear goals and objectives against which achievements can be measured. The BAP for Fisheries targets for 2010 need to be set in light of the objectives and aims of other conventions or agreements that affect similar species. There is also potential for over-lap among the different BAPs which has the potential for positive synergies (e.g. reducing fishing effort benefits for both commercial fish stocks and non-target species), but also carries the risk of antagonistic actions (e.g. the displacement of a fishery to conserve a commercial stock resulting in negative effects for nontarget species that are affected as a result of the displacement of activities).

There was considerable discussion over the rationale behind the utility of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to achieve either traditional fisheries management goals or wider-ecosystem management objectives such as the conservation of non-target species or habitats. The combination of adequately designated and managed closed areas in combination with reduced fishing effort was advocated to achieve a sustainable ecosystem approach to management. The mechanism of deciding which areas should be designated as MPAs was considered problematic. Some argued that MPAs can never be too large (a precautionary approach) but that their designation needs input from a broad range of ecologists and marine scientists, not just fisheries biologists. It was also argued that reduction of time that fishing boats spend at sea would lead to a decrease in the overall area of the sea affected by fishing activities, and that this on its own could achieve many of the aims of the BAP Fisheries for non-target species. Faced with a reluctance to reduce the time spent at sea we may be forced to turn to the use of No Take Zones or MPAs as a last ditch mechanism of reducing the adverse affects of fishing, but this may not be the optimal approach (c.f. fishing effort reduction). All concurred that sensitive habitats could only be fully protected from the adverse effects of fishing activity through the exclusion of fishing gear from appropriate areas of the seabed. Reducing fishing effort is critical as it could address many current fishery related problems through one action. In the current political climate, a combination of different approaches could ensure a long term future for a marine environment with a diverse range of ecosystems, habitats and species, coexisting with human activities such as fishing.

It was considered that it was difficult to encourage fisheries managers to consider the wider ecosystem effects of fishing in their deliberations regarding fish stock management, particularly in the case of the former Eastern Block states. For these states, wider ecosystem effects of fishing are likely to be much further down the list of management priorities. A considerable effort in terms of education was considered to be essential to encourage the fisheries managers within EU new member states to take a more holistic view of the consequences of fisheries exploitation.

The summary of the conference presented herein represents the authors’ views and interpretation of the substance of the forum. These views do not necessarily fully represent the opinions of all the contributors to the forum. In addition to the authors, the following individuals contributed to the forum: F. Blanchard, R. Blyth, F Boero, R. Ferris, E. Koutrakis, P. Lorance, E. Mostarda, E. Pinn, F. Pranovi, C. Von Dorrien.

Summary of discussions on Session 3: Biodiversity Action Plan for Fish - Aquaculture

By Ioannis Karakassis

Altogether 3 scientists participated in the discussions concerning Session 3 (F. Boero, S. Orfanidis and C. Zago). Among the issues described in the opening statements, the participants addressed only issues regarding the ecological efficiency of fish farming and the effects on Posidonia meadows. Concerns have been expressed regarding the sustainability of the mariculture particularly when carnivorous species are farmed demanding high input of fish protein. It has also been estimated that the effects on Posidonia meadows impose a rather high ecological cost since sea grass ecosystems offer high value ecosystem services. The potential use of alternative aquaculture practices (sea grass farming) as a means for restoration of disturbed habitats has been discussed and there have also been suggestions that polyculture could be used to minimize the ecological effects of fish framing.

However, the main issues regarding the efficiency of BAP priorities have been little discussed during the electronic conference despite the large scientific audience that has been involved in research on aquaculture-environment interactions during the last years. Perhaps, the lack of adequate response denotes that there is still a lot of research needed before arriving at firm conclusions on the significance of aquaculture effects on biodiversity.

Summary of discussions on Session 4: Biodiversity Action Plan for Natural resources

By Adrianna Ianora and Jon Davies

What are natural products and why are these resources worth conserving?

The introduction to the forum stressed the importance of marine natural products and secondary metabolites, and how these can help regulate ecosystem functionality by underpinning the chemical and molecular processes that are crucial for maintaining biodiversity. Many of these metabolites have also found important biotechnological applications in medicine and the chemical industry, or in the development of bioremediation strategies for the world’s oceans. There is, therefore, a need to better understand the natural function of these compounds so as to be able to manage and conserve these potentially important natural resources.

The discussion on this subject was not very active, and I apologize for not having been able to raise more interest in what I believe is a very important new field of research (this is the first time I participate in an e-conference!), but several interesting points were addressed by different colleagues that I acknowledge below.

Rob Van Soest addressed the problem of symbionts as being often the true producers of secondary metabolites rather than the host species, and how this issue complicates studies on the function and biosynthesis of secondary metabolites. Rob cites sponges as examples of suspected cases of microsymbionts that live in the tissues of sponges. But this also reminds me of the case of toxinproducing dinoflagellates where scientists have suspected for years that bacteria associated with these microalgae are responsible for the production of these metabolites rather than the dinoflagellate cells themselves. A debate still continues today about whether bacteria produce saxitoxin, or influence dinoflagellate production of this toxin. But since scientists have been unable to render the dinoflagellate axenic, it has been impossible to test this hypothesis. However, the recent identification of enzymes involved in saxitoxin synthesis may open the door to disclosing the source of the compound. Saxitoxin, the poison that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning, is so potent the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention lists it among the leading chemical weapons of war, and there are very strict regulations defining the use of this compound in research programmes. I fully agree with Rob’s comment that questions on what environmental factors trigger increased production of secondary metabolites, coupled with rigorously controlled experiments, will be extremely important before industrial production of useful metabolites can be designed.

Isabella Buttino addressed the problem of experimental design and the use of animal bioassays to identify new bioactive compounds. Unfortunately, we are still at an early stage in identifying bioassays for such purposes. Sea urchins are a standard assay for identifying anti-mitotic compounds produced by marine organisms for possible applications as anti-cancer drugs. But there are thousands of compounds, including not only natural products but toxicants and pollutants, that are capable of arresting cell cleavage in sea urchins. We therefore need to identify new cellular and enzyme assays that are important checkpoints in cell cycle progression. This would allow for the identification of compounds with specific cellular and enzyme targets. I agree with Isabella’s comments that the use of specific probes, such as those to study tubulin depolymerization or apoptosis, can be useful instruments in controlled experiments to understand the cellular targets of potentially interesting secondary metabolites.

Adriana Vella posed an interesting question regarding not only the problem of introduced alien species, but the impacts of introduced new diseases and pathogens within the marine environment resulting from increased population growth in coastal areas or new marine environments. These would certainly be expected to have far reaching impacts on biodiversity and natural resources, especially if the pathogens do not already occur in the autochthonous organisms. But I myself have never heard of new introduced marine pathogens, and if there are such examples, they probably are very few. But I would like to go back to the question of introduced alien species and the fact that such animal and plant migrations have occurred throughout history, and often the introduction has been extremely beneficial for humans. Many terrestrial plants were introduced into Europe centuries ago and are now part of our day-to-day lives (what would we Italians have done without tomatoes!). The question is not whether new species appear but whether they impact biodiversity. If a new species simply replaces another one, then it may have important commercial or social implications, especially if the species is not adequate for human consumption, but not necessarily disrupt ecosystem functionality. Adriana also poses the question of possible impacts of exploitation of natural resources due to organisms being unable to cope with a rapidly changing environment, or one that is subjected to heavy pollution. Again, I think there is no information on this subject. Since we know so little about what environmental factors trigger increased production of secondary metabolites, it is difficult to predict what would happen to their production under stressed conditions.

In another message Adriana Vella addresses the problem of the use of natural resources and how economic profit is often the driving force behind exploitation of these products, with little being done to encourage scientific research prior to exploitation of new resources. She cites the example of tuna penning in the Mediterranean Sea, and how this activity not only increases when spawning of the Blue fin tuna is greatest, but also continues into the non-fishing season so as to extend the period of economic profit. As she comments, we know so little of the impacts of these activities on Mediterranean Blue fin tuna stocks, and if we could assess such impacts, we could ensure sustainable use of this important natural resource and conserve both the resource and biodiversity for the future. I agree with Adriana that economic profit will often be the major force driving the exploitation of natural resources. The important thing is to exploit these products wisely. Taxol, probably the most important chemotherapeutic drug in use today, is extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifoglia) and exploitation of this resource has come to the point that there are hardly any yew trees left! Adriana concludes that marine biodiversity is a natural resource we cannot afford to deplete due to the lack of adequate precautions and proactive and efficient scientific research.

Summary of discussions on Session 5: Biodiversity Action Plan for Economic development

By Krystyna Swiderska and Chris Emblow

This session of the electronic conference was unfortunately not well subscribed to. The introduction was provided by Krystyna Swiderska, Biodiversity and Livelihoods Group, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), London, who also contributed to the sister Bioplatform electronic conference.

She identified the need for research to be focused on comparing the impact of conventional approaches to economic development strategies in the economic and natural resources sectors with ‘biodiversity-based’ strategies. Also the challenges involved in and the need to convince those negotiating co-operation and EC development strategies the value of biodiversity in achieving poverty reduction and economic objectives. As a starting point research should:

  1. use examples of approaches that integrate biodiversity, livelihoods and economic objectives in each key sector
  2. detail assessments of the impacts on the ground, including their contribution to food, health, income, livelihood security and ecosystem services (as well as cultural and spiritual wellbeing) be conducted
  3. make comparisons of these approaches with more conventional non-biodiversity based approaches
Such case studies should The need to involve local representative organisations within the research process, strengthening their negotiating powers is important. Research should be used to promote political support for biodiversity and promote change by engaging with as many stakeholders as possible. Further engagement and education of local communities and stakeholders in assessing the implications of different policy options will enable them to further articulate their preferred vision of the future.

The only other contributor to this session was Ferdinando Boero. He highlighted the underlying problems of global development. The short term solutions provided by policy makers to long term problems, the more political narrow view of problems which require broad solutions. He also highlighted the juxtaposition of asking economically emerging countries to look after their biodiversity for the benefit of everyone when we have made a poor job of managing our biodiversity during our development. He also highlighted that the problem is primarily political and although ecologists can do their best to advise and convince politicians otherwise, particularly that there are no simple solutions and predictions for the future, and it is the future we need to be concerned with. In short we need a lot of integration between politicians, economists and scientists and we need more insight and less focus on isolated issues.

General coordination: Carlo Heip ,Herman Hummel and Pim van Avesaath
Web site and conference hosted by VLIZ