ICES has been called upon to evaluate the description and delineations of ten specially designated ESBAs - ecologically or biologically significant marine areas - in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean, based on material from the Joint OSPAR/NEAFC/CBD Scientific Workshop on the identification of ESBAs and the outcome of a subsequent ICES peer review.
The numbered pockets of ocean, which span southwards from the Arctic region northeast of Greenland down to northwest of the Azores in the mid-Atlantic, were originally recognized as meeting EBSA criteria at a workshop hosted by OSPAR and NEAFC in September 2011. The criteria were adopted in 2008 at the 9th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity (COP 9) to cover factors varying from uniqueness of habitat to importance for threatened species. Aspects of the process of applying the science-based benchmarks were further set in stone two years later. In 2011, at the OSPAR/NEAFC/CBD workshop, the Northeast Atlantic saw the first taking up of CBD's request to pinpoint ESBAs.
As one task of a broader advisory process relating to EBSAs, the analysis of geographical boundaries for such underwater and seafloor features as ridges, fracture zones, and habitats with biotic variety, was crucial.
"Five of the original ten areas have been reconfigured according to more stringent application of the criteria to the available information, resulting in much tighter boundaries," explained Jake Rice, who chaired the Workshop to Review and Advise on EBSA Proposed Areas (WKEBSA) at the end of May in Copenhagen, the session being arranged in response to the OSPAR and NEAFC mandate. "We (the workshop) had a small meeting with 9 experts – that's ICES strength in pulling such people - and produced a report that came to a different conclusion with regards to 9 of the 10 areas that were flagged."
The resulting, re-mapped territories, however, will still need risk assessments to be carried out in them. These can then form the basis for decisions on steps to take to regulate the threat posed to the very features that made them EBSAs in the first place. Such areas are, therefore, fundamentally different to NEAFC Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs), which are governed under a specific UN Resolution.
"There are different consequences to attaching different labels," continued Rice, contrasting ESBA and VME terminology. "There's no question of the features (the biological and ecological ones which makes the respective areas ESBAs). The question then is – will your activity influence it?"