Marine Research Findings of the VECTORS Project

This website provides access to the research results of the VECTORS project, which can be used to support marine management decisions, policies and governance as well as future research and investment. VECTORS was a large scale project that brought together more than 200 expert researchers from 16 different countries. It examined the significant changes taking place in European seas, their causes, and the impacts they will have on society.

Marine ecosystem quality and health

European Member States have agreed via the Marine Strategy Framework Directive to work towards achieving Good Environmental Status, via the Water Framework Directive to aim for Good Ecological and Chemical Status, and via the Habitats Directive to aim for Favourable Conservation Status. These in turn help to fulfil national visions such as that from the UK whose marine management aims to achieve ‘clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas1. Hence all of these status conditions mentioned by the Directives implicitly rely on an understanding of and the ability to quantify marine environmental health, to measure any departure from it. This then requires us to determine the effects of natural and anthropogenic marine hazards and vectors of change on that health2 and then bring in coordinated management responses3

Tett et al.,4 defines good ecosystem health as: ‘the condition of a system that is self-maintaining, vigorous, resilient to externally imposed pressures, and able to sustain services to humans. It contains healthy organisms and populations, and adequate functional diversity and functional response diversity. All expected trophic levels are present and well interconnected, and there is good spatial connectivity amongst subsystems.’ Hence in the VECTORS project, we equate this condition with good status as mentioned above.

The overall marine state (Fig. 1), shows the ecosystem components (as the biota, their non-living environment, and trophic and biogeochemical fluxes) overlain by high-level ‘internal descriptors’ of system state: organisation and vigour which are responsible for the external property of resilience, which buffers ecosystem state and services against externally imposed (anthropogenic) pressures and other boundary fluxes, thus maintaining system integrity. Health describes the ability to maintain system integrity, which together with resilience is an emergent property of the whole marine system. Hence natural system should be considered together with the human system, giving the social-ecological system; management concern is then increased if the health of the natural system is compromised by the human system, uses and users. The health may be adversely affected by endogenic unmanaged pressures, those occurring within the marine area being managed, and exogenic unmanaged pressures, those operating from outside the area such as climate change5.

Figure 1. A systems conceptualization of ecosystem health4


VECTORS research focus:

  1. The VECTORS project has addressed the science behind the risk to marine health and the management of that risk. In particular, the properties of health can be affected by the pressures and activities studied in VECTORS: bloom forming species, over-exploitation of living resources, introduction of non-indigenous species, climate change, and energy extraction. Of those properties, and inherent to the models employed in VECTORS, resilience is central to health, but difficult to measure directly even if threatened marine ecosystems are at risk of losing resilience, and thus of suffering regime shifts and loss of ecosystem services. The monitoring of marine health against the vectors of change relies on an understanding of the trajectories of both the decline and recovery of ecosystems6. Hence the research undertaken by VECTORS emphasises the need for long term monitoring and modelling programmes to indicate which marine areas are healthy and which have, or in the future will have, their health compromised by the natural and anthropogenic vectors of change.


Lead Author

Mike Elliott

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The content of this website may be subject to copyright, if you wish to use any of the information or figures please contact the attributed author(s).
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no 266445
© Vectors 2015. Coordinated by Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

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