The Ecostructure Project
Our partners at the Ecostructure Project tell us about their work with structures to improve biodiversity in the marine environment.
The Ecostructure project is part of the marine area statement work.
We are a group of marine scientists and engineers who have been working on nature-based solutions in the UK and Ireland for over ten years. Nature-based solutions are actions that protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems. They address societal challenges in an adaptive way while also providing well-being to people and biodiversity benefits.
We are passionate about the marine environment and aim to provide expert evidence and advice to ensure it is conserved and managed sustainably. In particular, we study if and how nature-based solutions can be used to improve the ecological value of artificial structures built in the sea. It’s an approach known as eco-engineering.
Over a decade of research in Wales demonstrated that simple and cheap eco-engineering interventions can produce many biodiversity benefits when built into artificial structures. For example, creating artificial rock pools on breakwaters or seawalls can provide valuable nursery and refuge areas for marine species and enables structures to function more like natural habitats.
It has also shown that using alternative construction materials can have wider environmental benefits. For example, replacing traditional cement and aggregates with recycled or natural materials can reduce the carbon footprint of concrete. This can also make its surface properties more favourable for marine life. The research also revealed strong public and stakeholder support for eco-engineering in Wales and further afield.
Running from 2017 to the end of 2022, the Ecostructure project builds on this earlier work. It is a collaboration between universities in Wales and Ireland, working with local communities, public bodies and industry. It moves to understand and address the barriers to using nature-based solutions in marine developments around the Irish Sea.
The project aims to raise awareness of eco-engineering solutions and strengthen the evidence base for if and how different interventions work. It also aims to provide developers and regulators with the necessary tools to put them into practice.
To date, the project has mapped and characterised all artificial structures along the Welsh coastline, totalling 3405 artificial structures and 1260 coastal flood defences. If put end to end, these would equate to 495km of the Welsh coastline.
By comparing artificial structures with natural rocky shores, our researchers are developing tools to predict the diversity of marine species that are likely to colonise new structures. They also predict the benefits they will provide and the risks that they will support invasive species.
We have tested existing eco-engineering designs, such as drill-cored rockpools, bolt-on rockpools, artificial seaweed canopies and grooved wall tiles, to determine their effectiveness for structures in the Irish Sea. We have also developed and tested new eco-engineering designs, including innovative crevice units to provide shelters for fish and crabs on seawalls where they couldn’t otherwise live.
In addition, we have pioneered a novel approach to designing bespoke eco-engineering units that mimic natural rocky reef topography, which can be applied to different structures and site-specific scenarios. Rather than adding only distinct habitat features like rock pools and crevices, we can replicate full mosaics of reef topography on the surfaces of artificial structures. By doing so, they may be better equipped to provide the full range of light, temperature, moisture, current and slope conditions. We know these conditions enable biodiverse communities to thrive on natural reefs.
Evidence from the Ecostructure project and the broader eco-engineering field will be available in a one-stop catalogue on the Conservation Evidence website for stakeholders to use. The catalogue will enable others to apply the right eco-engineering actions in the right places and habitats. This aims to support greater biodiversity and ecosystem resilience throughout Wales, and across the UK and Ireland.
Finally, our hydrodynamic modellers have carried out experiments in wave flume tanks investigating the benefits of adding rough features to seawalls. We already knew that adding bolt-on rock pools or other rough features to seawalls can promote biodiversity. This new work suggests they can also enhance the performance of walls by reducing the amount of wave overtopping. This could be a win-win scenario for biodiversity and society.
Our research is particularly important from a marine policy perspective. There is an increasing push to incorporate nature-based solutions to make the most of the biodiversity benefits of infrastructure in the marine environment. It is incredibly important that regulators, developers, consultancies and the general public have a sound understanding of where and when we can use ecological engineering. This is due to the ever-growing footprint of these structures.
As researchers, we are personally committed to ensuring that decision-makers have the most robust evidence to ensure that intended eco-engineering outcomes are effectively met.
Ecostructure is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) through the Ireland Wales Cooperation Programme 2014-2020. For further information about the project, please visit the Ecostructure project website.
Our partnership with the ecostructure project is part of our marine area statement work.