A previous EuroMarine working group ANFORE noted how climate change and human pressure on marine environments are threatening a large number of species including those forming the “animal forests”. These benthic communities are dominated by sessile suspension feeder organisms such as cnidarians, sponges and bivalves, ecosystem engineers thriving both in tropical and temperate seas and at a wide depth range. The animal forests are of paramount importance because they enhance the morphological complexity of the seascape, affect the local physical and biogeochemical environment and provide food and protection to a rich associated benthic community. The 3D complexity of the biogenic structures built-up by these species may support high biodiversity and complex ecosystem functioning.
Marine ecologists are currently devoting considerable efforts to the evaluation of these animal forests' current status, ecosystem services provided, and conservation/restoration strategies, and characterising those alterations due to anthropogenic pressure and global changes. However, in order to fulfill this evaluation and characterisation, researchers must use measuring systems which allow them to replicate the 3D structural complexity at different spatial scales (from millimeters to dozens of meters) and their variation through time. In recent years, the up-take of new technologies has supported researchers and surveyors with the collection of in-situ data. For example Structure from Motion photogrammetry was applied to assess the gorgonian structure, morphometry, and biomass, to analyse the growth and structural complexity of coral reef. The development in underwater Remotely Operating Vehicles (ROV) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AOV) production led to the spread of these systems in ecological-biological investigations too, thanks to their economy, small dimensions and customization.
Yet despite these significant advances, there is still a gap in the ability of the current technological and methodological solutions to obtain high resolution measurements between aquatic and terrestrial applications. This is due to the inherent problems of operating in water and especially the challenges of working at depth that make it difficult for scuba-divers to collect data and check results. The EuroMarine-funded foresight workshop 3DSeaFor is targeted at addressing this gap by establishing a network of experts able and willing to invest their time, effort and materials into developing the next generation of systems and methodologies capable of producing detailed, scalable and validated 3D marine animal forest reconstructions.
The primary goal of 3DSeaFor is to promote the establishment of a large international and interdisciplinary team including marine ecologists and engineers (geomatics, IT, electronic) aimed at testing technological innovative systems, automatic data analysis tools and develop methodologies for a precise and multiscale reconstruction of marine animal forest 3D structures and their validation in the field on selected marine animal forest. This would represent one of the first cases of intense cooperation between ecologist and engineer focused on the study and conservation of marine animal forest in Europe.
By melding several specialities, experiences and interests, 3DSeaFor expects to produce:
- A review of the state of art (starting from the need of marine ecologist for the accurate and precise surveying of marine animal forests, deepening into the technological and methodological solutions currently available and assessing their costs and benefits).
- A position paper concerning the guidelines for high resolution investigations of selected marine animal forest (e.g. Mediterranean gorgonians…).
- A draft ERA-NET Cofund MarTERA proposal concerning the design and application of technological and methodological tools (e.g. 3D reconstruction, multi-cameras hardware and software, customized underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications for data analysis, properly designed sensors, modelling methods) for marine animal forest surveying and monitoring.
- A future proposal at Innovative Training Network (ITN) actions.
3DSeaFor will help to improve the scientific tools used to study and monitor “marine animal forests”, a need that was highlighted in the EuroMarine working group ANFORE. Furthermore, the technologies and methodologies this workshop helps develop will be beneficial to a wide range of ongoing and planned national and international research projects on the possible effects of human and global climate change related impacts in coastal marine habitats.