A transatlantic assessment and deep-water ecosystem-based spatial management plan for Europe


ATLAS will provide essential new knowledge of deep ocean ecosystems in the North Atlantic. This ambitious project will explore the world of deep-sea habitats (200-2000 m) where the greatest gaps in our understanding lie and certain populations and ecosystems are under pressure. The four overarching objectives of ATLAS are to:

1. Advance our understanding of deep Atlantic marine ecosystems and populations;

2. Improve our capacity to monitor, model and predict shifts in deep-water ecosystems and populations;

3. Transform new data, tools and understanding into effective ocean governance;

4. Scenario-test and develop science-led, cost-effective adaptive management strategies that stimulate Blue Growth.


ATLAS has completed an intensive schedule of 29 offshore cruises to date, to deliver new data on oceanography, marine biodiversity, genetics and connectivity. A further 13 are planned for late 2018 and 2019. Towards understanding ocean circulation, new chemical sensors have been deployed in the eastern subpolar North Atlantic in collaboration with the UK NERC-funded OSNAP initiative. This is a key advancement in our ability to understand the interactions of ocean physics with ocean ecosystems – in particular the cold-water coral systems of the Atlantic. Remarkable results from a study on Atlantic circulation conducted by ATLAS partners University College London and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada revealed a marked weakening in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) over the past 150 years and indicated that the trend is likely to continue. New predictive distribution modelling approaches and theoretical models of food webs and biogeochemical cycling of deep-sea ecosystems are being developed. ATLAS researchers have unravelled food supply mechanisms to cold-water coral reefs on the Norwegian shelf based on data from the LoVe observatory operated by ATLAS industrial partner Statoil. A publicly accessible database on deep-sea biodiversity of the North Atlantic with an emphasis on Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems has been produced. This will provide the baseline information for the Habitat Distribution Models and Species Distribution Models being developed in the second stage of ATLAS and inform the work on Good Environmental Status in the Deep Sea. Candidate species for analysis have been identified based upon their important functional roles in sensitive deep‐water Atlantic ecosystems and their availability in existing ATLAS partner collections. A database of this information has been produced. To help understand the connectivity of deep-sea benthic species and its implications for marine spatial planning, researchers have begun to model larval dispersal and life history traits in the Bay of Biscay, and on Rockall Bank. A Delphi survey has been undertaken to assess the risks of human drivers to ecosystem services supplied by the Atlantic deep sea. Emerging results indicate that temperature change, ocean acidification, fisheries and their cumulative effects pose the most risk to ecosystem services. ATLAS is using the approach developed by the FP7 MESMA project to examine marine spatial planning options across a selection of the project’s Case Study areas representing deep-waters from the EU, US, Canada and ABNJs (NEAFC and NAFO Regulatory Areas). Each case study has described existing sectoral activities, mapped the spatial management institutional landscape and described (any) existing management plans. Each has the management objective of accommodating new blue economy/blue growth activity, while ensuring minimum disruption to existing activities, minimum impact on delivery of ecosystem goods and services, and achieving good environmental status as required by the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

Science to Policy
The timing of ATLAS aligns well with opportunities to inform and influence policy options. These include the development of a new United Nations Implementing Agreement for biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) with implications for North Atlantic regional governance organisations; delivery of Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals; formulation of seabed mineral exploitation regulations by the International Seabed Authority; and EU maritime policies Marine Strategy Framework Direct, Common Fisheries Policy and MSP. The ATLAS concept and initial findings have been presented at our first Science Policy Panel held at the European Parliament.

Stakeholder Engagement
Stakeholder engagement has taken place with the offshore energy industry throughout the first period of the project. Two stakeholder events took place: The Blue Growth Data Challenge Workshop jointly organised with the INSITE programme through its Data Initiative project and two Blue Growth Data Workshops held at European Maritime Day. Further links with industry have been made through the ATLAS Advisory Board, with BP, Woodside Energy and Statoil providing data for the ATLAS case studies.

Impact in international / European cooperation

ATLAS looks to have impact in several key areas:

• Improvements in our understanding of climate change resilience and feedback effects on deep-water ecosystems;

• Enhanced understanding of relationships of Atlantic ecosystems to food quality and supply;

• Understanding of deep-sea ecosystem services to assist informed political decision-making based on values connected to ecosystem services;

• Ocean-scale Environmental Impact Assessments to improve sustainability of existing and new fisheries, aquaculture and marine resources;

• Location and predictive models of Atlantic vulnerable marine ecosystem distribution to provide improved rationale for Marine Protected Area management and closed areas;

• Improved cooperation among the EU Member States with respect to Atlantic ecosystem-based research as well as with International partner countries.

At a glance

Funding programme Horizon2020
Thematic area Improving the preservation and sustainable exploitation of Atlantic marine ecosystems
Duration May 2016 — April 2020
Budget €9,207,915
Keywords Ocean Basin-scale Research, Deep-water Ecosystems, Functional Ecology, Biodiversity, Bioegeography, Marine Genomics, Oceanography, Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, Marine Genetic Resources, Blue Growth, Marine Policy and Governance
Coordinator University of Edinburgh, UK


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