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. This year, we were granted a 2-year project extension to continue our work, and three new WPs will be added to the list below soon.

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

WP1, 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.

WP4 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.

WP5 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. 

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. Each output will be accompanied by a targeted awareness-raising initiative, using social media, fact sheets, e-newsletters and 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!