Marine Ecosystems


The goal of this programme is to address key knowledge gaps in marine ecosystems research by combining existing long-term data with new field-based and experimental observations. This, along with recent theoretical advances from marine and terrestrial ecology, will facilitate the development of more realistic marine ecosystem models, which in turn will help explore the impact of environmental change on marine ecosystems, including testing potential management solutions.

This is a five-year programme co-funded by NERC and Defra.

Marine Ecosystem - Finale science meeting 2018

11 Mar 2019

Stakeholder and finale meeting was held in London on 25 April 2018.

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The diversity of life in marine ecosystems is exceptional; while only one animal phylum is exclusively terrestrial, 21 phyla are marine endemics.

The functional roles of this marine biodiversity underpin major ecosystem services. These include food production, climate regulation through the cycling of carbon and other macronutrients, and a range of cultural values (for example recreation and tourism) that rely on the natural environment to a far greater extent than on land.

Biodiversity in marine ecosystems is experiencing ongoing environmental change: ecosystem restructuring generated by fisheries; eutrophication, pollution and other environmental degradation; climate-driven changes and growing human consumption and pressures, such as the recent expansion of the marine renewable energy sector.

Understanding the consequences of these changes, and designing, testing and refining potential management solutions to address them, is clearly important for the long-term delivery of services from marine ecosystems.

Marine food webs play a key role in regulating these ecosystem services, but there are important gaps in our understanding of species' functional roles and the way they might respond to environmental change.

First, although there is evidence that marine food webs are affected by both 'bottom-up' processes (such as biophysical factors affecting primary productivity) and 'top down' ones (for example, top predators modifying the biomass of lower trophic levels), existing knowledge is much greater for lower trophic levels and associated biophysical factors.

This means it is currently difficult to understand the relative roles of these processes, and hence the extent to which environmental change cascades through marine food webs and affects ecosystem services.

Second, these 'bottom up' and 'top down' processes are inherently dependent on scale. For example, small-scale changes in seabed topography, waves and currents can produce 'hotspots' of primary productivity that then affect the spatial distribution and abundance of higher trophic levels; large-scale removal of top predators through fishing or other activities can have a range of impacts across scales.

Scale-dependence is poorly understood, however, making it difficult to quantify the large-scale impacts on ecosystem services of changes at small spatial scales (such as marine conservation zones), and vice versa.

Third, it is unclear how functional diversity affects the way marine food webs regulate ecosystem services. This is potentially important because there is growing evidence that the loss of biodiversity from marine ecosystems can harm ecosystem functioning and services.

Improving our understanding in these three areas would facilitate the development of more realistic marine ecosystem models, which in turn would provide important tools for exploring the impacts of environmental change on marine ecosystems, and testing potential management solutions.

Aims & objectives

This action has been designed to address the knowledge gaps outlined above. It has three main goals:

  1. Improve our understanding of how key ecosystem services such as food production, macronutrient cycling and cultural values by marine food webs are affected by the relative roles of 'top down' and 'bottom up' processes, scale-dependence in these processes and functional diversity at different trophic levels.

  2. Integrate the improved knowledge and understanding gained in goal 1 with existing ecosystem models to explore the impact of environmental change on the structure, function and services associated with marine food webs across scales.

  3. Apply the models developed in goal 2 to test the impact of potential management solutions, such as marine conservation zones, on the structure and function of marine food webs across scales, and explore the efficacy of specific indicators of good environmental status.

These goals will be addressed through an integrated project in the Northeast Atlantic.


2013 - 2018

Can I apply for a grant?

There is are currently no open calls for this programme.


This programme has a budget of £6 million over five years.

Programme Awards

Award details are shown in our online grants browser - Grants on the Web.

View details of funded applications - external link


Moderating panel

The Marine Ecosystems full bids moderating panel took place in November 2013 in London. Panel members were as follows:

  • Professor Lloyd Peck - BAS (Chair)
  • Professor Mike St. John - Technical University of Denmark
  • Dr Maartem Boersma - Alfred Wegener Institute
  • Dr Steven Degraer - University of Ghent
  • Professor Kerry Turner - UEA
  • Dr Mark Johnson - National University of Ireland Galway
  • Rachel Leader - NERC (Panel Secretary)

Programme Advisory Group (PAG)

The role of the Programme Advisory Group is to advise the Programme Executive Board on the strategic direction of the programme and monitor progress. The Programme Advisory Group is made up of the following members:

  • Professor Kevin Gaston, University of Exeter (Chair)
  • Dr Tasman Crowe, University College Dublin
  • Dr Eugene Murphy, British Antarctic Survey
  • Dr David Paterson, University of St Andrews
  • Dr Mike St John, Technical University of Denmark
  • Professor Piran White, University of York
  • Rachel Leader, NERC (Secretariat)

The PAG is required to carry out the following tasks:

  • Advise on the strategic direction of the programme.
  • Advise on specification of the scientific content of published announcements of opportunity.
  • Contribute to the review of proposals and applications made to the programme for research funds and provide the PEB with recommendations on the allocation of funding resources.
  • Advise on appropriate ways to monitor and evaluate the progress of the programme towards its purpose and goals.
  • Advise on the development of national and international collaborative activities including emerging and future opportunities.
  • Advise on the development of user engagement.
  • Report, as required, to the Programme Executive Board.

Programme Executive Board (PEB)

The Programme Executive Board is responsible for providing the strategic direction for the programme, and the delivery of the programme's objectives. Its role includes programme governance, management, monitoring and reporting. The Programme Executive Board is made up of the following members:

  • Dr Mike Webb, NERC Head of Marine Sciences (Chair)
  • Dr Caron Montgomery, Defra
  • Professor Colin Moffat, Marine Science Scotland

Programme Management Team (PMT)

The day-to-day management of the programme will be carried out by a Programme Management Team, who will report to the Programme Advisory Board and Programme Executive Board. The Programme Management Team is made up of the following members:

  • Jessica Heard, Plymouth Marine Laboratory (Chair)
  • Icarus Allen, Plymouth Marine Laboratory
  • Mark Emmerson, Queen's University Belfast
  • Carole Kelly, Defra
  • Jessica Surma, NERC
  • Paul Somerfield, Plymouth Marine Laboratory
  • Rachel Leader, NERC (Secretariat)

The following documents and links are related to or give more information about this programme.

Marine Ecosystems theme action plan (PDF, 42KB)

Celtic Seas Partnership (PDF, 95KB)

Cefas biodiversity capability (PDF, 25KB)

Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute capability (PDF, 83KB)

Marine Scotland Science capability (PDF, 12KB)

The development of the Marine Ecosystems and BESS theme action plan and programme was informed by two workshops held in December 2008 that bought together experts on ecosystem sustainability from the marine, and terrestrial and freshwater, communities, respectively. A combined report from these workshops can be found below.

Combined report (PDF, 204KB)

Combined report - Annex 1 (PDF, 87KB)

Combined report - Annex 2 (PDF, 569KB)

Combined report - Annex 3 (PDF, 569KB)

Combined report - Annex 4 (PDF, 40KB)