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.
Marine coastal areas host highly productive ecosystems that are threatened by the high rate of urban development in these areas and associated stressors affecting ecosystem processes. An integrated and effective assessment of the state of marine coastal ecosystems must rely on the knowledge of all human pressures at different levels of biological organization. This includes microbiomes, which have been re-evaluated as a ‘bank of hidden biodiversity’, with fundamental, albeit still unknown, functional potential capable of opening up new frontiers in scientific knowledge.
A major challenge facing humanity and the ocean’s health is the degradation of marine environments due to the release and accumulation of a wide range of environmental toxicants, mainly of anthropogenic origin. These include endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), metals and nano/microplastics and other emerging contaminants, all of which pose possible risks for wildlife and human health through either direct exposure or accumulation in the food web.
Research on ecosystem connectivity has traditionally relied on species dispersal (structural connectivity), although this is only one of the many uses of space that allow species to connect different environments. Such long-term movements, typically occurring once along the species life-cycle, relate mostly to population connectivity, and are generally used to describe the spatial structure of populations and, in few cases, their demography.
Biodiversity is an enigmatic yet important factor for the accuracy of ecosystem modelling. The inclusion of living organisms is necessary for models that predict carbon usage and circulation, while capturing complex networks of feeding interactions across trophic levels is important for describing the functioning of ecosystems and their potential response to climate change. Links between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning are examined in biodiversity ecosystem functioning (BEF) experiments, yet upscaling their predictions to natural communities is not straightforward.
Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are proliferations of certain photosynthetic organisms (including unicellular phytoplankton and phytobenthos, macroalgae, cyanobacteria, and particular ciliates) that can cause massive fish kills, produce toxins that bioaccumulate in seafood, and/or cause ecological damage through the development of hypoxia/anoxia and other habitat alterations.
An Ecosystem Approach to marine management is advocated globally by international bodies including the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, and the European Union. In response, a plethora of computer-driven marine ecosystem models have been developed worldwide. The existence of multiple models has been recognized as an asset, notably due to higher confidence in convergent model results and a better cross-disciplinary understanding of model functioning in general.
In May 2018, the EuroMarine-funded working group ANFORE met at the University of Salento in Lecce, Italy to identify the gaps in knowledge of Marine Animal Forests. Their ultimate goal was the creation of a European project to identify and numerically estimate the ecosystem services provided by the animal forests of the world.
The biological uptake of carbon by marine plankton plays a central role in the regulation of Earth's climate, and supports fisheries providing essential nutrition to more than half the world's population. Ongoing changes in global climate are likely to put pressure on both these aspects of ecosystem function, with many developing countries particularly vulnerable.