Ireland positions itself as world leader in maritime research

Ireland positions itself as world leader in maritime research

Michael Gillooly, Joint Acting CEO, Marine Institute, talks about the institute’s efforts to promote research on Ireland’s rich maritime ecosystem and the reasons the country’s maritime research capabilities are significant on the international stage


How noteworthy are Ireland’s maritime assets?

Our ocean is our greatest national resource. Ireland’s maritime territory is 457,000 square miles of some of the most productive resources in Europe. Our ocean supports diverse ecosystems, is a source of food and influences our climate, weather and our wellbeing. It plays an important role in Ireland’s economy by providing employment in fisheries, aquaculture, technology, tourism and ports and shipping. Ireland’s seafood resource is the bedrock of the Irish ocean economy, which was valued at $1.3 billion in 2020. The waters around Ireland are some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe, with Irish commercial fish landings worth around $260 million annually. Approximately 40 percent of Ireland’s population, which is about 1.9 million people, live within three miles of the coastline. It is important that Ireland looks to sustain and support local economies and expand economic activity in marine areas.


Can you give us an overview of the Marine Institute’s history and operations in Ireland?

The Marine Institute was established under the Marine Institute Act in 1991 to act on behalf of the government to develop marine research and innovation. Our goals are to promote economic development, create employment and protect the marine environment. Recent estimates by the Socio-Economic Marine Research Unit at National University of Ireland Galway estimated that the overall turnover of Ireland’s ocean economy in 2019 was $7 billion and growing.

A key component is the institute’s provision of robust research and scientific review of data. The Marine Institute aims to be a global leader in ocean knowledge. The institute’s work in managing and creating marine data products has been accredited by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission’s International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange Data Centre. In recent years the Marine Institute’s research funding program, together with partners such as Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), has provided $6 million in funding for research on biodiversity, ecosystems and food webs, and more than €9 million for projects in the area of bioresources.
Our strategic plan is focused on the four following strategic areas: providing science-informed advice and services to the government; forecasting ocean and climate change; performing marine research; and supporting and developing the ocean economy. These four areas are underpinned by three enablers–the most important of those being our people. We have a workforce of approximately 200 people in addition to external service providers, research students and post-graduate students. A second enabler is data, which is a fundamental building block of research. Additionally, education and engagement are central to our work. We aim to generate greater awareness of the value of our ocean and inspire a new generation of ocean champions.


What kind of infrastructure does the institute rely on to support its research and collaborations?

We have many laboratories, two marine research vessels, a remotely operated vehicle, and a broad range of observing infrastructures, including weather buoys, a cabled observatory in Galway Bay and sea level gauges. The two research vessels currently in operation, the RV Celtic Explorer and RV Celtic Voyager, are among the most intensively used research vessels in the world. Ireland’s new vessel, the RV Tom Crean, will enhance Ireland’s capacity to undertake collaborative research and acquire data essential to managing our marine resources. The RV Tom Crean will replace the RV Celtic Voyager and provide a year-round service doing surveys to expand fisheries, seabed mapping and deep-water surveys. The new state-of-the-art, multi-purpose research vessel is due to be completed in 2022.

The Marine Institute’s research facility in Newport is one of the greatest natural laboratories for studying migratory fish in Europe. Its scope of study includes salmon, sea bass, pollock and bluefin tuna. In operation since 1955, the facility offers researchers a unique opportunity to investigate catchment ecosystem events, fish genetics, fish movements, fish stock assessment, fish mortality, climate change, oceanography and aquaculture. The combination of the unique location and long series of environmental datasets have attracted national and international researchers for decades. We have sensors placed from the river all the way down into the ocean, and some of these have been measuring water chemistry and biological activity for the last 60 years. This has given some great insights into the changes in both freshwater and ocean chemistry and their impacts.

Additionally, National Marine Biodiscovery Laboratory in Ireland is a biorepository of marine samples from the Irish exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for marine biotechnological research and to provide evidence-based data on Ireland’s ocean economy for economic forecasting and policy and decision making.


How close does the Marine Institute work with industrial bodies?

The level of co-operation with industry is noteworthy. Over 150 funded projects involved some level of industry collaboration. Nearly $49 million has been awarded to industry participants over the course of Ireland’s National Marine Research & Innovation Strategy to projects active from 2017 to 2019. Both national and transnational funding is at the heart of our programs. Key investments include the Newport Research Cluster, which studies extreme weather events along the catchment-to-coast continuum and informs the Climate Action Plan and the National Biodiversity Action Plan.


What international collaborations in marine research is Ireland involved in?

A significant number of collaborative international research projects have been supported. The portfolio of funded projects is diverse, and the Marine Institute is directly involved in over 60 projects with European and international partners. The EU, the U.S. and Canada signed the Galway Statement in 2013, which is a collaborative agreement to engage in research and development activities in the Atlantic area. This has evolved into a lot of direct funding, including the EU’s Horizon 2020 and now Horizon Europe programs. Overall, Irish researchers and companies won $90 million in Horizon 2020 funding from 2014 to 2020, often exceeding the targets set by the government.

We also put in place large-scale, Atlantic-based marine research programs, such as AtlantOS, which supports the implementation of an Atlantic Ocean observation system, and the Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance Coordination and Support Action, which is a co-ordination program led by the Marine Institute. These programs significantly heighten the level of research activity and developmental spin offs.

We are active with the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES), and many other international and European organizations such as the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic. While Ireland is a small country, we have high visibility in international forums. Two former presidents of ICES were Irish, and a number of Irish scientists are actively chairing a range of ICES working groups.

The Marine Institute is the co-ordinator of the Horizon 2020 funded Eurofleets+ programme, a consortium of 42 marine institutes, universities, foundations and small to medium-sized enterprises from 24 countries across Europe, North America and Oceania. Through Eurofleets+, marine researchers have access to the largest advanced research vessel fleet across Europe, Greenland, U.S., Canada, Bermuda and New Zealand. The project prioritises research on sustainable and healthy oceans.


How does the Marine Institute support Ireland’s maritime trade sector?

As an island nation, Ireland is dependent on ports and shipping services to transport goods to a much greater extent than our European trading partners. Around 90 percent of our trade is moved through Irish ports. Shipping and maritime transport services make a significant contribution to Ireland’s ocean economy, with the sector generating $2.8 billion in turnover and employing more than 5,000 people.

The Marine Institute’s Irish Maritime Development Office (IMDO) was established in 1999 with the specific remit to support the development of the maritime industry and shipping services sector in Ireland. The IMDO provides both technical and economic advice to the government on shipping. The IMDO has been busy for the last four to five years providing the government with economic and market analysis supported by robust data and economic projections. This has been a key service in preparing for and dealing with the impacts of Brexit. In the last 12 months, 24 new routes have been established between Ireland and continental Europe to maintain Ireland’s ocean trade routes. This is a trend that will expand. Many projects are underway in the ports sector valued at more than $607 million, with further projects in the pipeline worth more than $1.8 billion. This type of development has sustained the Irish economy for the last 20 years and will continue to facilitate Ireland’s export-led ambitions.


What major milestones is the Marine Institute most proud of?

The Marine Institute is engaged in research across a very wide range of areas. However, over the last 20 years key programs were initiated that have made significant advancements. One of these is the Integrated Mapping for the Sustainable Development of Ireland’s Marine Resource or the INFOMAR program. It is one of the largest civilian seabed mapping programs in the world. Alongside our partner, Geological Survey Ireland, the goal is to have Ireland’s entire seabed territory mapped by 2026. As of now, we are on target. Mapped territory is vital in helping sustainably manage our resources. This is the first time we have mapped Ireland’s EEZ. Additionally, Ireland’s integrated marine plan, Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth, has brought together representatives of government departments with an involvement in marine and maritime issues to co-ordinate inter-departmental action in 2012.

Another area of significant progress that has been made within the Marine Institute and across the Irish economy is the implementation of digital technology. In the marine research sector, new devices and numerical models are generating more data than ever before from more sources. Predictive oceanographic models can now predict wave activity. More local sensor platforms, such as autonomous devices and fixed sensor platforms, are being deployed. These provide real-time data to support marine innovation.


What is the Marine Institute doing to promote biodiversity in Ireland’s waters?

Sustainability is ingrained into the Marine Institute Act that established the Marine Institute. Ireland and the Marine Institute participate in international programs under the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) for assessment of fish stocks. We are Ireland’s national co-ordinators for the EU’s data collection framework and have a wider role in the national marine biodiversity program under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. We are not just looking at fish stocks, but the whole ecosystem in which they live to support development of ecosystem-based fishery management. We work with colleagues across Europe, North America and further afield. It is one ocean that connects us all.

One area of significant potential is aquaculture. The Marine Institute is supporting the development and implementation of a national strategy for the sustainable development of the Irish aquaculture industry. Areas of research activity include examining the economic and environmental benefits of integrated multi-trophic aquaculture. The idea here is that one species always finds a feeding niche in the waste generated by another species. Our researchers are looking at how nutrients fed to finfish generate high-quality organic and inorganic waste that can then be used for growing shellfish and marine plants such as seaweed. Integrated multi-trophic aquaculture is an ecosystem-approach strategy that combats climate change.


What work is being done to introduce more renewable energy in Ireland?

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland has made efforts to fund the development of new technologies in the maritime renewable energy arena. Many institutions across Ireland are active in this research space and are working with international partners to design new energy devices, applications and services. This will be a significant sector for Ireland in the coming years and will contribute to the climate action goals set down by the government. Ireland’s wind resources are enormous, especially around the coast. The private sector has ambitious plans to build extensive floating wind farms off the western and eastern coasts of Ireland.


What is the Marine Institute doing in terms of collecting data on climate change?

Climate change is the most significant agent of change at present, and likely in the future. Climate change will have impacts such as warming seas, acidification, lowered biodiversity, changes in weather and storm surges. Climate change has been recognized by our government and the institute. One of our strategic focal areas is modelling impacts to enable adaptation and mitigation. Marine pollution is a concerning element, and the Marine Institute has significant research and monitoring programs in this area. Over the years, we have built up significant time-series information on climate change that shows where variation and change may be happening.


What are the reasons Ireland considers itself a world leader in marine research?

Ireland has earned a good reputation in Europe and internationally for its participation in marine research and innovation and for driving collaboration in this area. The Marine Institute has seen significant collaborations with industry and other research centres, universities and international stakeholders. We have an obvious geographical advantage in the marine sense. Ireland is on the western fringe of the EU but at the center of its trade. This allows us to use the country as a locus for Atlantic research, technology development and innovation. Ireland is described as an ideal place to innovate due to it being small enough to run tests, but large enough to demonstrate a significant impact.

Innovation 2020, Ireland’s national research and innovation strategy, identified marine as one of eight areas of focus for social progress and the economy. Ireland’s National Marine Research & Innovation Strategy 2017-2021 sets the national strategic focus in terms of research capacity and capability. One of the key goals is to create coherence in the various state actors involved in funding marine research.

Ireland is very advanced in information technology. Nine out of ten of the largest software and IT companies in the world have their European headquarters in the country. There is significant research capacity across Irish-funded research centers, notably SFI’s funded research centers such as SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics, Center for Digital Content Technology and Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Future Networks and Communications. Public sector organizations in Ireland have a strong ethos of promoting open data. Ireland is well positioned to apply new digital technologies to a rapidly expanding wealth of data to advance Irish marine science and management. Ireland wants to fully realize this world’s marine potential while protecting our marine resources from climate change and biodiversity loss. We want to maintain our seas in a healthy state for generations to come.