The highly diverse Mediterranean Sea ecosystems host around 7–10% of the world’s marine biodiversity. Shelf bottoms represent 20% of Mediterranean seafloor, playing an important role for biodiversity (compared with the 7.6% share in the world oceans). However, the marine communities inhabiting the continental shelves and slopes are in a poor conservation state, mainly caused by decades of human impacts. Bottom trawling has greatly contributed to the degradation of deep-water habitats to a point where the abundance of megafauna has declined dramatically. This has caused local extinction of multiple species and the simplification of habitats, now mainly formed by vast extensions of barren sediments with low structural complexity and populated by a reduced number of species that tolerate human impacts (e.g. motile or burrowing species). The negative effects from recurring industrial fishing are widespread in all Spanish Mediterranean coastal waters. The conservation status of the benthic habitats is especially critical in the Catalan continental margin, which is identified as a hot spot of ecological importance due to the high concentration of threatened species. Here, more than 90% of the seafloor between 50 and 800 m depth is severely exploited and depleted by different practices, especially trawling. In the Girona and Barcelona provinces, this practice annually extracts more than 22 700 habitat-forming sessile organisms. In rocky areas, the highly complex topography of bottoms prevents trawling access, however, benthic ecosystems are here threatened by artisanal fisheries, which can annually remove more than 1 300 structuring species. This high fishing pressure is triggering a reduction in the structural complexity of the benthic habitats and an impoverishment of the associated biodiversity, affecting most of the ecosystem services provided. In the central and northern Catalan margin, there are 14 no-take areas (290 km2) where fishing has been permanently restricted to recover fish stocks. However, the ability of these habitats to recover from human impacts is extremely slow. Natural recovery may take centuries, so it is of key importance to actively initiate or expedite recovery and revert degradation.
The main objective of the LIFE ECOREST project is to contribute to reversing the poor conservation status of benthic habitats of the Catalan continental margin that are impacted by fishing activities. This will involve re-establishing the habitats’ main ecosystem services and functions. Specifically, LIFE ECOREST aims at restoring the existing no-take areas (290 km2) in the continental shelf and slope (5-550 m depth) of the Catalan continental margin through the recovery and transplanting of ecosystem engineering benthic species accidentally caught by fishers in adjacent zones. This will be done through active restoration strategies to be implemented in close collaboration among scientists, fishers and public administrations, and transferred to other areas.
To this end, the project aims to:
- Validate the efficacy of low-cost, low-tech restoration strategies for transplanting structural benthic organisms at large spatial scales to recover habitat structural complexity in no-take zones;
- Evaluate the recovery of ecosystem services (e.g. fish nursery grounds) in restored areas and adjacent fishing areas by assessing variations in habitat complexity and associated biodiversity;
- Promote a participative fishery management by elaborating a collaborative and consensus-based proposal of permanent no-take areas and management measures between partners and stakeholders to minimize the impact of fishing;
- Facilitate dialogue and strengthen governance mechanisms to contribute to active restoration and its scaling-up by ensuring knowledge transfer, training and exchange of experiences;
- Raise awareness among different target groups (fishers’ associations, local populations, schools) about the importance and fragility of benthic habitats and the need to protect and restore them;
- Replicate active restoration and governance schemes in other fishing areas of the Spanish Mediterranean coast and in the marine Natura 2000 network as a conservation measure to be included in management plans;
- Transfer collaborative schemes and active restoration measures to other areas of the Mediterranean where benthic habitats are also threatened by the impact of fishing.
The project is in line with the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive, Recommendation on Integrated Coastal Zone Management, Maritime Spatial Planning Directive, COM/2009/0466 “Towards an Integrated Maritime Policy for better governance in the Mediterranean”, and EU Common Fisheries Policy. The project also helps implement Decision GFCM/37/2013/1 on area-based management of fisheries, Spanish National Green Infrastructures and Ecological Connectivity and Restoration Strategy (2020), and Regional Decree 118/2018 on the governance model for professional fishing in Catalonia.
- Active restoration of 14 no-take areas along the coast of Girona and Barcelona (more than two thirds of the Catalan coast);
- Retrieval of around 76 000 organisms from bycatch (e.g. sponges, mussels), suitable for restoration actions;
- Successful return into the sea of 75 000 individuals (survival rates covering 98% of bycatch);
- Restoration of species protected by the Barcelona Convention and/or included in the Mediterranean IUCN Red List, Aplysina spp., Axinella polypoides, Corallium rubrum, Dendrophyllia cornigera, Leiopathes glaberrima, Lophelia pertusa, Madrepora oculata, Tethia spp. Sarcotragus foetidus, Spongia lamella, Spongia officinalis, Isidella elongata, Desmophyllum dianthus;
- Improved conservation status of several reef formations (Habitat 1170 “Reefs” - Annex I Habitats Directive) in those areas already identified within no-take zones;
- Improved connectivity of benthic populations between the northern and central Catalan margin;
- Engagement of the most important fishers associations in restoration actions (300 vessels, 36% of the Catalan fishing fleet);
- Development of 20-30 trips on-board fishing vessels to each no-take area < 200 m depth to restore benthic communities;
- Installation of 18 aquarium infrastructures to recover bycatch (2 per fishers’ association);
- 4 oceanographic surveys to perform monitoring and deep restoration actions;
- Transfer to at least 3 other areas of ecological importance: Menorca Channel SCI and fishing reserves in Cádiz and Ibiza;
- 35 people trained in 6 capacity-building sessions;
- Celebration of an info-day and a closing event (200 participants each);
- Awareness-raising activities, including impactful social media, seminars, a travelling exhibition, downloads of digital material, and activities with school students.