London Symposium debates ecological connectivity across temperate coastal habitats

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The Zoological Society of London, a Wetlands International Europe member, hosted in collaboration with the University of Portsmouth an event in late November highlighting the importance of ecological connectivity in coastal and estuarine locations. The meeting brought together scientists, practitioners, and policymakers to discuss the topic in detail and how to improve coastal restoration on a larger scale. Wetlands International Europe supported the event, which contributes to our activities on swimways and vibrant coasts.

The event kicked off with Dr Tundi Agardy suggesting that ecological connectivity is a critical and boundary pushing element of conservation, as it needs to be fit-for-purpose, integrative, and requires long-term commitment, requiring a deeper understanding of the system we are trying to restore. She also laid out the hierarchy of restoration interventions, beginning with patches of active restoration, up to habitat-wide recovery, integrated multi-habitat restoration and finally, transboundary seascape regeneration – our ultimate goal. This goal will require multiple actors working collaboratively, as well as visionary leadership to drive the process and think long-term. This set the scene for the following two days to imagine restoring the full functionality of ecosystems, rather than piece-meal projects.

Another interesting concept discussed was the down-side of nature-based solutions thinking, a surprise to many working in the environmental sector who usually see this as a positive. However, it was noted that it can be dangerous to think of ecosystems as only providing one or two solutions/services and that this is too simplistic of a view. Furthermore, projects often expect the benefits to be marketed to donors, but it is difficult to quantify and put a timeline on these benefits.

Scientific researchers and restoration practitioners presented their work on restoring habitats for oysters, kelp, and seagrass in coastal ecosystems across Europe and the world. For restoring native oyster reefs across European coastal regions, the importance of evidencing historical data was highlighted in order to understand the habitats that previously existed and what could again be restored.

Positive projects were shown in Chesapeake Bay where large areas of seagrass have been in restored on the Virginia Coastal Reserve, and in southern Australia, where a lost reef ecosystem gained national momentum. In Australia, projects are encouraging species interactions through a multi-habitat restoration practice of seagrass, kelp and oysters among others. In England, the Solent oyster restoration project saw success through community and government engagement to restore oyster reefs, with increases in associated biodiversity and refuge and foraging habitat created for the critically endangered European Eels. This work paved the way for a large 5 year Solent Seascape Project 2023- 2027that aims to restore across the seascape  for benefits to people and nature.

ARK Nature described the whole ecosystem approach they use in the North Sea, which considers species dispersal, trophic complexity, and random disturbances to enhance self-sufficiency for robust natural ecosystem restoration. They also suggested the need of incorporating restoration and rewilding projects within business models. Other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) can represent a new domain for how conservation can be incorporated into such business models. Companies are often interested in getting involved, they need to appeal to youth who want to work in organisations that are good for the planet, but private sector restoration should be additive to public and NGO projects.

The Oxford Seascape Ecology Lab explained how ecological connectivity combines structural (physical elements) connectivity with functional (biological) connectivity and should combine global metrics (seascape-wide) with local connectivity (site-specific).

Turning the focus on fish, it was suggested that the life-cycles of fish exemplify seascape connectivity. Research has shown that the quality of juvenile fish habitats is very important for species success. The context can be more important that the habitat itself so the position of restoration in the seascape should be considered. Regarding patch size of restoration in such aquatic habitats, several small reserves may be as effective than one large reserve as many coastal habitat are naturally patchy, and fish tend to move between them. Finally, it is vital to monitor fish as restoration projects are essentially still experiments.

In terms of restoration tools, marine habitats could be better connected and restored through the use of soundscapes. Acoustic cues guide settlement of many species, and sound is an important attractant for fish, so we need to consider the wider sensory environment when conducting restoration work. Such tools for bioacoustics surveys could include GoPros, audiomoths, and artificial intelligence.

Finally, the symposium explored decision making in habitat restoration, identifying adaptive management and flexible decision-making as key. Systems need to support consistent monitoring, evaluation, and learning at scale. An example provided was from The Nature Conservancy’s Reef Builder project in Australia. This work hosts large scale monitoring data to be able to visualize and report on restoration, using a consistent, single source of data which enables the development of generalizable relationships and can model various ecosystem services. This is important for demonstrating progress and success, as well as for allowing information exchange. With such data systems, the sector can mimic the idea of business intelligence through creating conservation intelligence.

As an output of the symposium, a peer-reviewed paper will be published on the science behind ecological connectivity in the temperate coastal environment.  This will also support a policy-piece on the importance of seascape scale restoration for healthy, resilient coasts and estuaries.

Logo for EU life Program

This symposium was co-funded by the European Commission through LIFE NGO funding. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.