Marine ecosystems

The urgent need to protect marine ecosystems

28. February 2023 by Theresa Dirtl
Climate change, pollution, overfishing: they are all changing the world, having a huge impact on the seas. The global network Q-MARE, under the co-leadership of Konstantina Agiadi from the University of Vienna, studies past changes in order to provide guidelines for a more effective protection of our oceans.
The human impact on marine ecosystems is immense, changing and destroying them. Some of the changes are already irreversible. Within the Q-MARE network, scientists from all over the world are studying pre-industrial impact in order to understand today’s changes and develop protection measures. © Pixabay

Rudolphina:  Q-MARE is a global network of scientists from different disciplines, all working within the context of marine ecosystems. What is the aim of the network?

Konstantina Agiadi: Each of us – palaeontologists, historians, archaeologists or marine scientists – may work in a different region or on a specific topic but, in the end, Q-MARE has one unifying goal: to disentangle climate and pre-industrial human impacts on marine ecosystems.

Rudolphina: So you want to establish how the climate and humans affected marine ecosystems in pre-industrial times?

Konstantina Agiadi: Exactly. We need to establish a baseline in order to really understand the huge changes on marine ecosystems taking place today due to human impacts – ranging from climate change to pollution and overfishing. A baseline tells us what the seas would be like if they had not suffered those impacts, it allows us to evaluate the changes that are happening today and it helps us establish more efficient measures to protect our oceans.

We are looking into past periods before the industrial revolution caused massive changes. And we are trying to find out how we can distinguish changes that happened to the marine ecosystems due to natural climate variability – glacial changes, for example – from changes that happened due to human activities. Of course, the baseline has to be specific to each region: in some areas, human activity started having a significant impact only in the 20th century, whereas in others, such as the Adriatic Sea, there has been intense human activity since the Roman times.

We should really try to protect what is left. Otherwise, with regards to the marine environment, we will end up 'eating the bait', as the famous saying goes.
Konstantina Agiadi

Rudolphina: What is the advantage of working together with scientists from so many different fields?

Konstantina Agiadi: Scientists working in different fields do not usually meet, because each field has its own scientific community. The network helps a lot: it brings people together. For example, an archaeologist working on a site close to the shore and a palaeobiologist studying sea organisms in the same area may be oblivious to one another. The archaeologist may find the remains of organisms that were fished by humans, and learn about the techniques and the amounts of fish that were captured. On the other hand, the conservation palaeobiologist may observe a decrease in the abundance of these fish in the sea. Without knowing what humans were doing at the time, the palaeobiologist will be unable to explain the pattern they observed.

Rudolphina: What is the big difference between changes in the past and changes taking place nowadays?

Konstantina Agiadi: The global aspect. Nowadays, change is everywhere, it is not just localised. That is one thing and, of course, the rate of change is very high. Today, it is not only taking place globally, but also at a very, very fast pace.

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Knowing the history of our environment is important, as is knowing the history of our societies.
Konstantina Agiadi

Rudolphina: Q-MARE is mainly looking at the past. Do you also predict future scenarios?

Konstantina Agiadi: That is not our focus at this first stage, but we are interested in pursuing this in the future, and indeed some of our scientists are already using geohistorical observations to inform and validate ecosystem models for the future. I am afraid to say that some changes within the marine ecosystems due to human impact are irreversible. For instance, what has been happening in the Mediterranean for many years due to climate change and human impact cannot be reversed. We have already altered the ecosystem completely.

The Conservation Palaeobiology and Historical Ecology group led by Martin Zuschin, to which I belong, is composed of many researchers working on projects in the Eastern Mediterranean. We see huge changes due to overexploitation, trawling and pollution, but also due to climate change in combination with the opening of the Suez Canal: Many organisms, such as fish or shellfish, are being driven away. Many have moved to the north because it is a bit colder. But how much further north can they go? The Mediterranean is a relatively restricted sea.

That is saddening. There were theories that said that these organisms would adapt to the new conditions. But this is not happening. Greece is not the Bahamas. It is going to be bad. Because even if the ecosystems are shifting to the north, the organisms cannot fully adapt to northern latitudes.

Predictions about climate change are dire, but we see that nations and their leaders do not always do what they should to prevent further environmental deterioration.
Konstantina Agiadi

Rudolphina: What can be done?

Konstantina Agiadi: I think it is very important to understand and appreciate what we still have. This is also why the Q-MARE working group targets education because it is really important that young people, students and children know what was there before. Actually, we are developing an educational tool at the moment that will be available on our website in summer.

Every generation, the people belonging to this generation believe that what they are experiencing is normal because they do not know what was there before. This phenomenon is called the shifting baseline syndrome, and it is something we really have to fight against, because the situation we are now experiencing is not normal. It is not as it should be. We should know this and the younger generations should know this. Not necessarily because we have to try to revert it (in many cases this cannot be done), but to emphasize the need to protect what we still have and to prevent any further change.

Predictions about climate change are dire, but we see that nations and their leaders do not always do what they should to prevent further environmental deterioration.

Rudolphina: What is your personal motivation for the project?

Konstantina Agiadi: I believe in the power of networking. Interacting with different experts, like archaeologists, historians, etc. is very important to me. It inspires me a lot as a scientist. Since we are working on the same topic from different perspectives, we see the bigger picture of marine ecosystems and will therefore be able to protect them even better.

Rudolphina: Thank you very much for the interview!


Launched in January 2022, Q-MARE is a working group that is part of the international initiative Past Global Changes (PAGES). All scientists involved in the working group study marine ecosystems on different time scales, periods and areas of the world. The unifying goal of this global network is to disentangle climate impacts from pre-industrial human impacts on marine ecosystems.

© Konstantina Agiadi
© Konstantina Agiadi
Konstantina Agiadi is a senior postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Palaeontology at the University of Vienna. Her research focuses on past fish faunas and food webs to understand the relationship between climate, basin connectivity and marine ecosystem structure.