Functional biodiversity in a changing sedimentary environment: implications for biogeochemistry and food webs in a managerial setting

Project Details


Main research question/goal
Human activities in the marine environment result in multiple pressures. Two of the most obvious pressures on the southern North Sea sediments are “hardening” and “fining”. “Hardening” mainly results from the installation of offshore wind farms, where foundations provide a hard substrate for a diverse underwater fauna. Fining of sediments results from multiple human activities, mainly aggregate extraction, beam trawling, dumping, and the introduction of artificial hard substrates. Both pressures are expected to have important implications for biogeochemical cycling (e.g. N-cycling) and food web structure (e.g. secondary production).

FaCE-It aims at understanding the impact of fining and the hardening on the benthic ecosystem functioning (i.e. biogeochemical cycling and food webs) from the local scale to those larger scales in which managers are interested for implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD).

Research approach
We identify existing structural and trait diversity datasets for the southern North Sea and complement them with new data from targeted field campaigns. Data collection includes stable isotope analysis, sediment profile imaging, sediment trapping), lab experiments (e.g. carbon and nutrient flux measurements) and sediment transport modelling (e.g. wake plume modelling). Different hydrodynamic and ecosystem modelling approaches will be used to upscale our local findings (e.g. enhanced biodeposition, benthic-pelagic fluxes) in time and space to the southern North Sea. Indicators for ecosystem functioning will be fine-tuned and tested.

This project fills important knowledge gaps. Sediments play an important role in the functioning of coastal marine environments. These processes are considerably affected by the presence and activity of macrobenthic organisms. The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) states that Good Environmental Status (GES) is reached only if “structure and functions of the ecosystems are safeguarded and benthic ecosystems, in particular, are not adversely affected”. Preliminary results from a ongoing (scientific) evaluation of the MSFD implementation process however indicate that while ecosystem functioning is explicitly mentioned, by far most of the attention was thus far paid to structural aspects of seafloor integrity. A lack of scientific knowledge on ecosystem functioning (relative to knowledge on structural aspects) and a lack of operational indicators for ecosystem functioning are considered to be at the basis of this neglect.
Effective start/end date15/12/1530/06/21

Flemish Discipline list

  • Animal ecology
  • Marine ecology
  • Environmental management
  • Aquatic biology
  • Environmental impact and risk assessment
  • Ecosystem services
  • Community ecology