Ecosystem Overviews extend to deep waters of the North Atlantic

ICES has released two new ecosystem overviews today for the Oceanic Northeast Atlantic and Azores ecosystems.
Published: 12 December 2019

​​​​​​​​​​​​Our ecosystem overviews describe the current state of regional ecosystems, identify the main human pressures, and explain how these pressures affect key ecosystem components at a regional level. Presenting the main human activities in a region creates awareness of their distribution and the resultant pressure on the environment and ecosystems across ICES regions. The overviews are developed with the most up-to-date knowledge available to the scientific community, but also inform where knowledge is lacking, alerting to situations that need further attention and where effort is needed to close the gap. The strength of the overviews lies in the quality of the data and information provided, based on contributions from a large number of expert groups within the ICES community.

As a series, the overviews highlight the capacity of ICES to advance and shape ecosystem understanding throughout the North Atlantic Ocean, the Baltic Sea, and beyond.

Oceanic Northeast Atlantic overview

The Oceanic Northeast Atlantic ecoregion​ is entirely oceanic in an area beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), i.e. outside the exclusive economic zones of the EU member states, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. Here, the deepest waters of the North Atlantic are found. They contribute to the complex system of cold and warm currents that dominate the region and have a profound influence on processes on a planetary scale. The influence of climate change on these currents is unclear but any effects will travel beyond this region.

Francis Neat and Odd Aksel Bergstad, co-chairs of the workshop for the production of the Oceanic North East Atlantic Ecoregion Ecosystem Overview, are proud of today's publication. Neat comments, "ICES has long held an interest in the deep ocean and high seas of the Northeast Atlantic, however, it has rarely been in the spotlight and can be overlooked. This Ecosystem Overview reaffirms the importance of this area to ICES and the growing interest in ocean climate, biodiversity, and the management of human activities there."

“The Oceanic Northeast Atlantic ecosystem currently and historically has fewer human activities than other ICES ecoregions that are closer to land and that have more readily exploitable resources."

The main pressures here all originate from vessels, either fishing, military activity, or shipping.

Fisheries were more important in the past than today where strong management measures are in place to prevent overfishing, allow stock recovery, and to protect vulnerable species and deep-water stocks.

This is a vast region, and so there is less information and data available. There are many seamounts and sections of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that remain unexplored in this region due to the difficulty in access.

Neat also points out the importance of the area for migratory species, such as blue whales, blue shark, bluefin tuna, many seabirds, and turtles that can be found here. "This ecosystem, being remote and deep, has historically been less impacted by human activities than other ICES regions. Nevertheless, some of the species and seabed communities found there tend to be highly vulnerable to exploitation and disturbance and so careful management and strong regulation of human activity is important"​

Azores ecoregion overview

Existing as an ecoregion within the Oceanic Northeast Atlantic, the Azores​​ is similar in many ways, and many of the same pressures apply. One major difference is the pressence of land-based pressures. The most important pressures in the region are the selective extraction of species, marine litter,​​ and the introduction of non-indigenous species.

Fishing is important in the region. Commercial fishing takes place until 700 metres and uses longlines as trawling is forbidden. Fish stocks in the Azores ecoregion are typically widely distributed stocks, their state is affected by pressures over a wider area than just the ecoregion itself.

Shipping, particularly through ballast water and the biofouling of hulls, is the main species introduction vector, followed by water currents. Since 2000, a total of 33 new species have been recorded in the Azores.

The Azores provides an important resting point for migratory seabirds and grounds for migratory marine mammals. Land-based pressures, including the introduction of predatory mammals (e.g. rats and cats) to islands as well as the attraction to artificial light of juvenile seabirds can affect the seabird populations.

Commenting on the release of the overview for this ecoregion, Régis Santos, Institute of Marine Research, University of the Azores​ has stated that, “The Azores Ecosystem Overview is an important source of information for development and implementation of the ecosystem approach in Azorean waters, as it promotes some comprehension on the structure and functioning of deep open ocean ecosystems and the impacts of the main human activities on these ecosystems. This scientific knowledge highlights the importance of the Azores ecoregion to the wider North Atlantic and helps ICES to deliver advice on societal trade-offs between different policy options." 

Maria de Fatima Borges, chair of the Workshop for the production of the Azores Ecoregion Ecosystem Overview (WKAZOREco) adds that “This is important for ICES work as a wide ecoregion of the southern Mid-Atlantic region, similar to the Iceland Waters ecoregion in the northern Mid-Atlantic region".

Future overviews

Following today's advice release, ICES now provides ecosystem overviews for nine ecoregions​: Barents Sea, Norwegian Sea, Icelandic Waters, Greater North Sea, Baltic Sea, Celtic Sea, Bay of Biscay and Iberian Coast, Oceanic Northeast Atlantic, and Azores.

A new group to develop an ecosystem overview for the Greenland Sea has been established and will meet for the first time in February 2020. Interested participants are encouraged to contact the chair of ICES Working Group for an Integrated Assessment of the Greenland Sea​. A new overview will also be produced for the Central Arctic Ocean led by a working group, co-chaired by ICES, PICES and PAME​.  

Alongside these ecosystem overviews, ICES also provide fisheries overviews for seven ecoregions​ and have recently taken on the challenge of developing aquaculture overviews.  ​​

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Ecosystem Overviews extend to deep waters of the North Atlantic

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