International project launched to conserve biodiversity in the Mediterranean region


Marine forests of macroalgae are among the most species-rich habitats in the Mediterranean. They are home to sea urchins and a variety of fish such as the Sparids. Human impacts and the effects of climate change have thrown these productive ecosystems out of balance in some Mediterranean regions. In the new project “MUrFor - Managing sustainable sea urchin fishery and marine forests conservation“ researchers at Kiel University (CAU) collaborate with Italian, Spanish and, French scientific partners to create effective management tools to protect marine forests and foster sustainable fisheries in the Mediterranean.

The aim of the project is to develop and implement a management toolbox for the conservation of biodiversity in the Mediterranean region involving artisanal fisheries, tourism and politics. The transdisciplinary project is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) for three years as part of the European Biodiversa+ partnership.

Marine forests in the Mediterranean Sea facing critical thresholds

In the Mediterranean Sea, both sea urchin and fish constitute important sources of income for many coastal communities. However, unsustainable harvesting practices and overfishing can have devastating effects on the marine ecosystem and lead to overgrazing of macroalgae, resulting in permanent regime shifts. Although this situation is common in coastal systems, there are few examples of effective coordinated management of fisheries and habitats. The MUrFor project now aims to fill this gap, by investigating two study areas presenting opposite manifestations of the same management conundrum. In Catalonia, Spain, overfishing of fish such as seabreams, which are key predators of sea urchins, has allowed sea urchins to proliferate uncontrollably, permitting overgrazing on once species-rich marine forests; in contrast, in Sardinia, Italy, intensive fishing of sea urchins has led to a decline or collapse of this resource in many areas. Both developments have had enormous negative consequences for artisanal fishing, tourism and especially for the biodiversity of marine forests, former crucial habitats for various species.

"When an ecosystem is on the threshold of collapse, biodiversity and local populations suffer in the same way. Without fisheries, the livelihood and food security of many people is at risk. In some regions, the tipping point already seems to be close," says Dr. Lotta Kluger from the Center for Ocean and Society (CeOS) at the Kiel Marine Science (KMS) priority research area of Kiel University. Together with her colleague Dr. Giovanni Romagnoni, the marine ecologist and fisheries expert is coordinating data collection in the individual regions and contributes to project management. "In the consortium, we want to develop management options that guarantee food security from natural resources while maintaining healthy marine forest ecosystems - a complex challenge that can only succeed engaging with local stakeholders," says Kluger.

Sea urchin plays pivotal role in the Mediterranean ecosystem

As a first step, the thresholds that lead to irreversible changes in the regions studied will be identified. The target is to deeply understand the processes regulating the ecological and socio-economic systems. This includes the sea urchin Paracentrotus lividus, which plays a pivotal role as one of the most important herbivores in the Mediterranean Sea, controlled mainly by the commercial fish species of the sparid family (seabreams). At the same time, it also has a high value as a culinary delicacy known far beyond the national borders.

The transdisciplinary project MUrFor combines different expertise and is based on the principles of participative management between researchers, the regional fisheries and Marine Protected Areas managers, and decision-makers from politics and tourism. MUrFor is one of a total of 36 funded projects selected from more than 200 applications in the European Biodiversa+ call.


Dr. Lotta Kluger