Dr. Michael Sweet​

Full Professor in Molecular Ecology, School of Built and Natural Environment, Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, University of Derby (UK)

From as early as I can remember I have loved the natural world. This wonder and deep respect for all living organisms was primarily nurtured by my mum who, when I was young, protected our local countryside as a countryside ranger. Her work allowed me many opportunities for attending bat walks, to creepy crawly shows and her patience meant our house was often full of animals ranging from ducks to foxes, tarantulas, and bearded dragons. At high school, apparently all I could talk about was becoming a marine biologist. At my reunion a few years ago, when people asked me if I reached my goal, it was a very pleasurable moment when I could say “Yes, I have!!” Our research takes on a truly collaborative approach and spans across the globe. From Australia to the Seychelles, the Maldives to the Cayman Islands and many places in-between. Aside from these sunny climes, we have also worked in the Arctic, closer to home in our freshwater rivers, and in the deep sea (2000 metres down). My team, who call the Aquatic Research Facility our home, work on sharks, turtles, crayfish, seagrass, sponges and of course, corals. We’ve described long forgotten species thought to be extinct, and novel diseases plaguing the organisms we love so much. This led us to pioneer two key areas of research which I will discuss more in the plenary; we were the first in the world to spawn corals ex situ, which has enabled upscaling of reef restoration efforts around the world, and we were early pioneers in the developments of harnessing the microbiome (bacteria and fungi for example) to prevent biodiversity loss. We are passionate about impact and science communication. Indeed, I’ve won awards on this topic from the British Science Association. You will often find me giving public lectures or workshops at schools trying to inspire the next generation to carry on this fight to save our world. We also work closely with politicians and organizations like the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the United Nations. For the UN, we used science to inform policy in the fight against plastic pollution and I am now currently leading the ‘state of our coral reefs’ chapter for the 2024 World Ocean Assessment. My goal is simple, save our planet and leave something amazing for future generations to come.

Anthropogenic impacts such as climate change, pollution and land reclamation are destroying coral reefs on a global scale. This is having a devastating impact on the ecosystem services that they provide, as well as the livelihoods of close to a billion people that depend on them. With the intensity of these anthropogenic stressors predicted to increase, reducing our carbon footprint is paramount but are we doing enough? The short answer is no, so what do we do next? Many are putting their time and money into reef restoration or rehabilitation – aimed at increasing the resilience of corals, but can such practices be deployed at the scales needed? In this plenary, I will discuss the state-of-the-art approaches being undertaken around the world, with particular focus on tools aimed at enhancing coral stress resilience, and thereby supporting the regrowth of coral reefs that are robust under future environmental conditions. These include such practices such as selective sexual propagation, assisted evolution, assisted gene flow and the application of probiotics. Such techniques have now been shown to be feasible and some appear scalable, ready for deployment in the real world. We will explore of such concepts have been developed and how everyone will be able to use the technology and methods to support coral reefs across the globe. Finally, we champion the need to follow a decision-making process which accounts for different types of reefs as well as the environmental conditions. As we move into a world where implementation of adaptive interventions tailored around nature-based solutions becomes more common place, we must now attempt to standardize restoration frameworks, and deliver appropriate ecological risk– enefit assessments, for consistent and effective utilization of the methods globally. It is now time to save the world.

Dr. Marta Ribes

Senior researcher at the Spanish National Research Council (ICM-CSIC, ES)

Marta Ribes earned her Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Barcelona in 1998. Her thesis focused on benthic feeders’ metabolism, utilizing in situ incubation chambers for gorgonian species, sponges, and ascidians. After her Ph.D., she conducted postdoctoral research at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, uncovering the significance of picoplankton in coral reefs and the role of hydrodynamics in nutrient acquisition. Awarded the prestigious “Ramon y Cajal” contract in 2001, she secured a tenure-track position at the Institute of Marine Science in Barcelona, becoming a permanent staff member in 2007.

Researching coastal marine benthos on rocky substrates dominated by filter feeders, she focuses on the energetic dynamics sustaining the metabolism of the dominant taxa. Her work explores strategies for resource acquisition, such as symbiosis and structural investment, and investigates ecosystem-level energy dependence through hydrodynamics. Her research lines include assessing energy inputs and nutrient acquisition through comprehensive diet studies and quantifying oxygen consumption. This energetic approach has pioneered the understanding of large-scale benthic organism mortality related to climate change. Simultaneously, she has contributed to research on energy investment in secondary production in benthic invertebrates and collaborated on understanding the geographical expansion of invasive species, such as the coral Oculina patagonica, emphasizing the significance of organism interactions in spatial occupation.

Her research primarily involves in situ studies under actual environmental conditions, emphasizing seasonal analyses across changing environmental factors. This is particularly relevant in temperate seas like the Mediterranean and crucial within the context of climate change. Her work has resulted in 66 scientific papers cited over 4,300 times, several book chapters, and outreach papers. Continuously funded as PI for 10 competitive projects and involved in over 20 projects as a research team member, she has also supervised several PhD and MSc theses.

“Marine coastal ecosystems, including coral reefs, are globally renowned for their exceptional productivity and biodiversity, playing a crucial role in climate regulation, nutrient cycling, and primary productivity”. As a benthic ecologist, this perspective has fueled my exploration of functional traits in benthic filter feeders, leading to insights into nutrient acquisition and the triggers of large-scale mortality events linked to climate change. These studies have challenged established paradigms such as the use of dissolved organic matter as food and highlighting the crucial role of picoplankton as a nutrient source on coral reefs, with benthic filter feeders acting as primary mediators. Understanding the dynamics and constraints of particulate nutrient capture has emphasized the significance of hydrodynamics in these processes.

There is growing concern about the impact of human-induced stresses, driven by climate change and global environmental shifts, on coastal ecosystems. Despite the acknowledged contributions of benthic filter feeders to the biogeochemical processes like carbon burial and nutrient recycling, which can mitigate the impacts of climate and human-induced changes, the implications of a shifting seafloor ecosystem have not received sufficient attention in academia, public discourse, or political spheres. Emerging scaling approaches in ecology, from trait-based analyses to ecosystem functioning, present challenges. The current simplistic categorization of biological traits and functional diversity overlooks the complexity of metabolic pathways and organism interactions. There is a pressing need to consider organisms as holobionts, understanding their role in mediating fluxes within the water column and their functional responses for a more accurate depiction of ecosystem functions.

Understanding the dynamic interplay between physical and biological processes is essential for grasping the ecosystem functions of benthic communities. To anticipate future biological-physical connections amidst environmental shifts, a comprehensive understanding of benthic community functioning, including particle and nutrient exchange with the water column, is imperative. Improving our knowledge of benthic exchange rates in relation to local hydrodynamics enhances our ability to predict the ecological impacts of these communities. Addressing these issues requires experimental approaches, integrated modeling, and robust observational networks that transcend biases toward specific locations and seasons. Conservation and restoration plans must be grounded in this holistic ecological understanding, emphasizing the need for proactive measures based on a deep comprehension of ecosystem dynamics.

Dr. Sergio Rossi​

Associate Professor in Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences and Technologies, Università del Salento (IT)

As a research scientist specializing in marine natural resources and biological oceanography, Sergio Rossi’s work is dedicated to the understanding how global change affects the oceans. His primary focus extends across crucial domains, encompassing the identification of global change indicators, examination of stressors impacting coastal benthic populations, exploration of marine invertebrate distribution patterns, and the study of benthic-pelagic coupling processes. Additionally, his research contributes to the conservation and restoration of marine wildlife. Currently he holds the position of Associate Professor at the Università del Salento (DiSTeBA) and Permanent Professor at the Universidade Federal do Cearà (Labomar). Since 2016, he also held the position of Scientific Director at the ocean regeneration company Underwater Gardens International, based in Barcelona. He has also worked at the Environmental Science and Technology Institute (ICTA-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain) and at the Institut de Ciències del Mar (ICM-Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Spain). He has actively participated in over 50 research projects, including those under the 6th and 7th, Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe framework EU program projects such as METRO-MED, EUROGEL, HERMES, CENSOR, MedSeA, Blue Islands, PHAROS, and more. He served as the Principal Investigator in 9 projects. These achievements were made possible through close collaboration with 6 Post Docs, 18 PhDs, and nearly 60 graduate and master’s students, as well as a very extensive international network. Currently, he holds the position of coordinator for the Horizon Europe “Ocean Citizen” project and serve as the chair of the MAF-WORLD COST networking action.

Combined with the compounding effects of global change, humanity’s ecological footprint is increasingly imposing unsustainable pressures on marine coastal and deep ecosystems across environmental, economic, and social dimensions. The ongoing transformations and shifts are so intricate and synergistic that they may not be readily perceived as dramatic changes but rather as adaptations to current social and economic demands. The close interconnection of benthic and pelagic systems ensures that perturbations in the water column impact benthic communities most severely.

Marine Animal Forests (MAFs) stand as the foremost living three-dimensional benthic structures in the oceans, spanning from tropical to polar regions and from shallow to deep waters. Functionally similar in many ways to terrestrial forests, MAFs consist of sponges, cnidarians, bryozoans, ascidians, bivalves, and other sessile benthic organisms. Serving as ecosystem engineers, MAF builders modify local hydrodynamics, nutrient flows, and influence biodiversity distribution. We are gradually understanding the role of MAFs in fostering biodiversity and biomass, while also acting as carbon immobilizators. One often overlooked yet crucial function of MAFs lies in their contribution to the global carbon cycle, with these enduring structures, whether in shallow or deep waters, serving as significant carbon reservoirs. In fact, MAFs capture and store carbon through various mechanisms, including food ingestion and symbiotic activity, particularly in mixotrophic organisms.

Over recent centuries, mature and complex Marine Animal Forests have been in decline, transitioning into more simplified communities, thereby diminishing their role as complex biostructures. This decline is mirrored in the reduction of various ecosystem services provided by healthy Marine Animal Forests. To counteract these detrimental trends, it is imperative to halt ecosystem-destructive practices, even if they are financially lucrative. This necessitates the provision of accurate data demonstrating the tangible losses incurred by such practices on human societies, coupled with evidence that alternative approaches can deliver economic and societal benefits. Therefore, there is an urgent need for comprehensive and integrated analysis of data to inform evidence-based decision-making and foster sustainable management and regenerative practices.

This information holds critical importance not only for local communities and stakeholders but also for informing policy frameworks and shaping future scenarios by utilizing such data to assess the significance and restoration plans of these three-dimensional underwater forests. To effectively scale up restoration efforts beyond existing frameworks, new concepts must be embraced, integrating a wider range of stakeholders, and ensuring active participation. At the core of large-scale restoration endeavors lie education and citizen engagement, coupled with meticulously planned regeneration programs based on functional ecology, which can adapt restoration plans to the rapid changes occurring in our oceans.