This World Oceans Day (June 8), Oceana sounds the alarm on the rapid retreat of European underwater forests from climate change and irresponsible human activities. Every year the loss of thousands of acres of these ecosystems and the consequent damage to hundreds of species goes unnoticed. The international marine conservation organization is calling on EU Member States to implement emergency measures to halt the disappearance of their most profitable ecosystems.
Underwater forests are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet: one hectare of seaweed or seagrass can produce over 18,000 Euros per year in economic benefits, 8 times more than the value of a hectare of tropical forest. Yet climate change, pollution, anchoring boats, destructive fishing techniques, resource overexploitation, invasive species and coastal construction are some of the causes that have led to their drastic decline in recent decades.
"If a loss of this scale were to occur on land, it would be a scandal that policy makers would be unable to ignore," said Ricardo Aguilar, research director of Oceana Europe. "Seagrass meadows, kelp forests, and fucoid, coralligenous and rhodolith beds are as or more important than the meadows, and oak, birch, pine and beech forests across Europe, but most citizens don’t even know they exist, much less that they are disappearing."
Underwater forests are a massive defence against coastal erosion, which costs Europe around 90,000 million euros a year. Yet, despite knowing that every euro invested in marine and coastal conservation translates into at least 10 to 15 euros of profit, the EU spends little to nothing on protecting these habitats. In addition, marine ecosystems bring Europe a net profit of 20,000 million euros a year.
"It is urgent that the EU put in place a plan to slow marine deforestation and that Member States include these habitats in their conservation priorities," added Aguilar.
Throughout Europe, kelp forests in the Bay of Biscay, Cystoseira meadows in the Mediterranean and the Zostera meadows of the Atlantic are dying off. Southern European countries – which mark the southern distribution limit for many of these species - are facing the severe risk of losing their submarine forests, where many of the most important species are found and any changes to their environment can be devastating.
Seagrass, flowering plants and fruits that form large marine meadows are declining at a rate of 3-5% annually, and most could disappear in less than a century. Kelp forests, which once were home to hundreds of species and maintained coastal fisheries in large parts of Europe, are now limited to small areas and their severely altered density, distribution and composition make it difficult for them to maintain their ‘forest’ role in the ecosystem.
Learn more: Kelp forests