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European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency
News article11 June 2024European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency4 min read

LIFE saving habitats under the sea

UN World Oceans Day is celebrated on 8 June each year, with ‘Awaken New Depths’ as this year’s theme. We are marking this occasion by highlighting two LIFE projects protecting nature in coastal zones. 

World Ocean Day 2024
© LIFE21-NAT-DK-COASTal-LIFE/101074422 & LIFE18 NAT/SE/000959. All rights reserved. Licensed to the European Union under conditions.

About 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by ocean. Our oceans play a significant role in creating and sustaining life on earth. To mark World Oceans Day, we highlight LIFE LOPHELIA and COASTal LIFE – two projects in Sweden and Denmark respectively saving life under and by the sea. 

In a Swedish university aquarium laboratory, white corals glow pale white in their dark tanks, gently waving to and fro in the current. This is Lophelia pertusa, a reef-building cold water coral found in northern Europe. The corals live between 40 and 3 000 metres below the surface, with some specimens up to 4 000 years old. They face an uncertain future. Lophelia have a red listing from OSPAR - the European body protecting the north-east Atlantic marine environment – and on the CITES Appendix II list, meaning they are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but sea trade must be controlled to protect them. Climate change, trawling, deep-sea fishing, and seabed oil and gas drilling threaten their survival.  

The numbers of natural Lophelia coral reefs are decreasing. In Norway there are still several, including the largest inshore Tisler Reef, measuring 1 200m by 200m. But in Sweden, living corals exist in only two out of six reefs in the Natura 2000 Kosterfjorden-Vderfjorden area. LIFE LOPHELIA is bringing modern technology to save an ancient species, by creating concrete-mixed reefs so coral larvae can attach and grow into new reefs. The project aims to restore all six areas through such artificial three-dimensional structures.  

Speaking on these tiny species’ vital role, “Corals are critical for the ecosystem. Lots of organisms find their food there and they provide food for others and a place to mature for many species. Hopefully, things are soon going to look brighter for Lophelia,” said Ann Larsson, marine researcher at the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Marine Sciences and member of the LIFE LOPHELIA team.  

Back in the aquarium, these tiny swaying corals started out life on the Tisler Reef. Kept in tanks, they have spawned, with the larvae used for experiments including testing materials and structure types for future reefs. A 3D printer was used to make different models and tested with currents simulating suitable environments for the larvae.  

Across the watery border to Denmark, four former salt meadows and shallow lagoons are being restored. These Natura 2000 sites are home to 11 habitats and nine protected bird species – all in unfavourable conservation status and under threat. COASTal LIFE will bring new life to stone reefs, sandbanks, mudflats and sandflats, shallow bays, and coves, and create new eelgrasses and mussel beds. These are currently threatened by agricultural nutrients impacting water quality, and rising sea levels.  

But by reducing agricultural use, the salt marshes can absorb nutrients flowing from the fjords and hinterlands. Such wetlands are nature’s method of carbon capture and storage and reducing emissions – the six-year COASTal LIFE project aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by almost 3 180 tonnes a year.  

Human activity such as extensive farming, and flood control via hard surfacing have negatively impacted the local ecology and status of the salt meadowlands – in addition to higher water levels and sea erosion. Extensive work is being carried out such as flooding flood lochs and lagoons periodically, removing drainage ditches and dikes to re-establish natural flood and hydrology patterns, and breaking through sea walls.  

The project will establish over 900 hectares of improved habitats including salt meadows, islets, stone reefs, lagoons and ponds in outer coastal zones, eelgrass beds, and oyster and mussel beds. And in time, these shores could see flocks of its protected feathered inhabitants return, from pied avocet to little tern, common tern, Arctic tern, sandwich tern, dunlin, common goldeneye, pale-bellied brent goose and red-breasted merganser.  

Speaking about COASTal LIFE’s work in boosting biodiversity, “The coastal zone is facing severe challenges in the form of climate change and rising sea levels, eutrophication, and loss of biodiversity because of agricultural use. COASTal LIFE is working with all three crises to find solutions and exploit synergies,” said Torben Bramming Jørgensen, leading project manager.  

COASTal LIFE was showcased at the CINEA stand at European Maritime Day held last month in Svendborg, Sweden. The event featured discussions about joint action on maritime affairs and sustainable blue economy.  

Many European countries are at risk of water scarcity and more frequent droughts. The Water Wise EU campaign is tackling some of the greatest challenges, through solutions that focus on building water resilience. Across food and agriculture, nature, energy, and industry, it is raising awareness about the stress on our water systems and helping us ‘See Water Differently’. 

As well as contributing to the Natura 2000 network, the two projects align to a number of EU directives and policies. These include: the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030; Zero Pollution Action Plan; Common Fisheries Policy; Water Framework Directive; Birds Directive; Habitats Directive; Floods Management Directive; and EU Adaptation Strategy

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