Oceana scientists have wrapped up an eight-week, at-sea research cruise in the North Sea, surveying 15 areas of special conservation interest across the waters of the UK, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway, covering 5400 miles (8700km). Oceana will now study the data collected at-sea to identify key areas that should be protected from human activity (such as excessive fishing, marine traffic or oil extraction), and be granted the status of marine protected area (MPA) by respective national authorities.
During the North Sea 2017 Expedition, funded by the Dutch Postcode Lottery and in collaboration with the North Sea Foundation, Oceana has used the latest technology to allow scientists to study and film marine life at the bottom of one of the world’s most productive yet troubled seas.
“Underwater ecosystems, although out of sight for most of us, have an impact on our everyday lives. By protecting and ensuring healthier marine life through well-managed marine protected areas (MPAs), we can recover popular fish stocks like cod, haddock and sole, as well as make our beaches cleaner and even improve water quality in general”, explained Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of Oceana Europe.
An underwater robot was used for over 110 hours to stream real-time images from depths of up to 460 m and SCUBA divers carried out 34 dives to photograph and film marine life and habitats. A multibeam echosounder was also deployed to map the seafloor, and scientists took a total of 188 samples from the ocean floor to analyse species that live in the seabed.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), recommends protecting 30% of marine waters within marine protected areas (MPAs). Currently, only 15% of the Greater North Sea has such protection. In addition to protecting vulnerable and threatened species and habitats, MPAs can also play an important role in supporting the recovery of commercial fish stocks, by safeguarding areas of ‘essential fish habitat’ where fish feed, reproduce or grow.
Data gathered during the expedition will also be used to consider the effectiveness of some existing MPAs in the North Sea and propose stronger management, as currently, only 12% of MPAs in the region have fully implemented management measures.
Oceana’s survey areas were selected in consultation with government agencies, scientists and experts in the five nations studied, to identify priority areas where first-hand data are most needed to advance the protection of marine life. This year’s research builds on Oceana’s initial surveys of the North Sea in 2016, and the findings will form the basis of proposals to strengthen the network of North Sea MPAs, through the creation of new MPAs, expansion of existing ones, or improved management measures. The data compiled will also be shared with governments, scientific institutions, and other NGOs in the countries surveyed.
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 The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.