Our Research

The Ecostructure project is organised into nine different Work Packages (WPs). Below you’ll find information about the six original work packages that form the project and the three additional Work Packages that were added as part of our funded project extension in 2020.

WP 1: Operation Leadership and Management

Ecostructure Steering Meeting
The Ecostructure research team and steering group at the second annual project meeting, Cork, June 2018
Work Package 1, led by Aberystwyth University, underpins the operation of Ecostructure by providing management and administration support. In addition to overseeing the day to day delivery of activities, the management team coordinates and supports a Steering Committee comprising representatives of key public and private stakeholders. The Steering Committee provides guidance and advice on the direction and focus of the research operations.

WP2: Ecological Condition of Coastal Structures

Mapping coastal structures on the Irish Sea coastline using Lidar technology
Artificial coastal structures such as sea walls and breakwaters can serve as analogues to natural rocky shores and reefs, supporting superficially similar ecological communities. However, ecological communities on artificial structures generally differ from those in natural habitats, with potentially important consequences for coastal biodiversity and ecosystem services. Characterising these differences in the context of the Irish Sea forms a key step towards Ecostructure’s overarching goal of promoting ecologically-sensitive design of artificial structures in the marine environment.

WP2 is mapping and characterising key features of artificial structures in the Irish Sea and the environmental contexts in which they are placed. This will enable identification of the features that are associated with minimal impacts on natural ecosystems that may also give rise to conservation and societal benefits. The team is also sampling biota to compare ecosystem patterns and processes on selected structures and nearby natural analogues.

WP3: Building-in Ecologically-Sensitive Design

An experimental ecological enhancement "tile" that mimics natural surfaces, being tested in the Irish Sea.
Research has shown that it is possible to promote biodiversity on artificial coastal structures through engineering design interventions, with potential for achieving associated socio-economic benefits – this is called ecological engineering (or eco-engineering). Although a wealth of evidence exists globally, eco-engineering designs have rarely been implemented in full-scale developments and many questions remain about their potential value and scope of application. A survey of stakeholder opinions in England and Wales indicated that a lack of awareness of and confidence in the evidence supporting these eco-engineering solutions is a key barrier to their implementation.
Ecostructure researchers installing enhancements in Wales
WP3 is bringing together ecological engineering evidence from research trials around the world and generating new evidence through experimental trials of existing and new eco-engineering designs deployed on artificial structures in the Irish Sea. WP3’s tasks include, among others: 1) collating a catalogue of tried-and-tested eco-engineering interventions with an evaluation of the evidence supporting their efficacy; 2) testing existing eco-engineering interventions in Irish Sea artificial structures to assess their performance under different environmental conditions; 3) designing and testing new eco-engineering interventions in Irish Sea artificial structures.

WP4: Non-Native Species and Biosecurity

Sampling D. vex in Cork Marina
Researcher Joe Ironside samples Didemnum vexillum (D. vex) in Cork Marina.
The introduction, spread and establishment of non-native species, facilitated by the continued expansion of global trade and transportation networks, presents one of the biggest global threats to biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Ports and marinas are particularly susceptible to the introduction of non-native species owing to the lack of boundaries in our oceans and coastal seas, and the free movement of commercial and recreational vessels, which transport non-native organisms in their ballast waters and as fouling on their hulls. Increased frequencies of extreme events (storms, precipitation) and gradual climate warming have enhanced the likelihood of introduction and secondary spread of non-natives in coastal seas. Increases in hard structures such as coastal defences, built as a consequence of climate change, also potentially facilitate the secondary spread of non-native species by providing stepping stones of suitable habitat for fouling organisms.
Ecostructure researcher conducting experiments on D. vexillum samples in the lab.
Work Package 4 is addressing the above issues by investigating the distribution patterns and genetic structure of non-native species in relation to artificial structures around the Irish Sea and determining mechanisms by which artificial structures facilitate the introduction and secondary spread of non-natives. The team will be 1) developing a tool for predicting effects of coastal structures on dispersal and gene flow of native and non-native species; 2) developing biosecurity devices and protocols for ports and marinas; and 3) creating tools for early warning and rapid response to non-native species.

WP5: Society, Economy and Governance

Coastal defence structures play an important role in protecting lives and property from the impacts of climate change, while marine renewable energy generation forms an important element of plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, both types of development can have negative impacts on coastal ecosystems and associated industries (e.g. tourism, fishing). In order to maximise the positive effects of new and existing developments, it is important to take opportunities to enhance their economic, environmental and cultural value to coastal stakeholders. Work Package 5 is addressing stakeholder engagement with coastal development and its socio-economic impacts, developing a collaborative approach to ensure that proposed eco-engineering solutions for coastal structures provide maximum benefit to all communities of interest. WP5 work includes analysing community needs; assessing management priorities for coastal infrastructure; developing the Ecostructure Observatory, a GIS-based online mechanism for interactions with stakeholders; and developing an Ecostructure stakeholder network.

WP6: Technology Transfer and Dissemination

In order to support effective and inclusive decision making with regards to the ecologically-sensitive design of our coastal infrastructure, it is important to communicate and disseminate the project’s outputs to relevant audiences, including public authorities with relevance to European Directives (e.g. MSFD, MSP), private sector organisations in relevant industries (e.g. construction, shipping, fishing, tourism), academics in related fields, and the general public. WP6 is raising awareness of the tools and resources produced by the project, encouraging uptake and use by those with the greatest potential to benefit from them.
Invasive Species Fact Sheet
Ecostructure is producing stakeholder-focussed tools and resources designed to raise awareness and facilitate uptake of opportunities to employ coastal eco-engineering solutions to climate change adaptation. WP6 produces social media content, fact sheets, e-newsletters and helps draw attention to Ecostructure’s own innovative GIS-based information gathering and transfer mechanism to connect with potential end-users. Take a look at our newsletters, access our downloadable fact sheets, or watch videos of our researchers out in the field on our Multimedia pages. And keep an eye out for our information boards along the Irish Sea coast, which you can find near our experiments!

WP7: Upscaling and Translation of Coastal Eco-engineering

An experimental ecological enhancement "tile" that mimics natural surfaces, being tested in the Irish Sea.
Work Package 7 will look at upscaling and translating concepts, models and prototypes developed in Phase 1 of the project. This will involve delving deeper into some areas from the perspectives of both top-down drivers such as law and policy and bottom-up drivers such as stakeholder perception. Key activities will include working with commercial partners to upscale eco-engineering designs, reviewing policy and legislation on both sides of the Irish Sea, working more with decision makers around new developments and assessing cultural values of artificial structures.

WP8: Habitat Creation by Offshore Renewable Energy Developments

An offshore wind farm
Work Package 8 will address further knowledge gaps around native and non-native species (NNS).  Surveys will be undertaken to determine the biodiversity of native and NNS on artificial structures in the subtidal zone. A database of DNA barcodes for NNS will be developed and we will investigate the use of environmental DNA techniques as a tool for early detection of NNS.  Building on earlier work, particle tracking tools will be developed to look at predicting impacts of existing and planned offshore renewable developments on range expansions of native and non-native species.

WP9: Artificial Habitats for Commercially Valuable Species

Photo: Team Sheehan, Plymouth University, 2020

Work Package 9 will take aspects of WP2 and 3 to the subtidal environment, where we aim to create ecological enhancements suitable for post-larval and adult lobsters. WP9 will investigate the potential importance of offshore renewable energy structures to commercially important species, including lobster and brown crab. A combination of laboratory and field trials will examine behavior and habitat preferences of these species.  We’ll be designing and building habitat units of differing shapes and sizes to place in the Irish Sea, then tagging and tracking individuals in situ using acoustic telemetry. We will also investigate the potential for eco-engineering to enhance the recreational value of coastal structures such as seawalls, harbor walls and jetties through making structures more attractive to fish species targeted by recreational anglers.

Can wind farms provide habitat for commercially important species?

Previous research has shown that offshore renewable energy structures can provide habitat for a number of pioneer species via their reef effects. Using acoustic telemetry, we will track a number of lobster and crab at a windfarm site in order to reveal specific habitat associations of these species and investigate the potential for a ‘spill-over’ effect within the surrounding fisheries. With offshore wind energy becoming increasingly important to the UK energy supply, we believe it is particularly important to investigate the potential ecological and economic effects of these sites.