The assessment of marine biodiversity consists of many components

Biodiversity loss is an even more serious threat to the environment than climate change.

Lasse Kurvinen - Suvi Kiviluoto

The writers work as a special planner in Metsähallitus and a researcher in the Finnish Environment Institute

Biodiversity can be measured and described in many different ways. Therefore, a variety of assessment tools are needed to try to find the best practices for safeguarding biodiversity.

Biodiversity often focuses on "hot spots"

The protection of both species and habitats is the best guarantee for the preservation of biodiversity. Some of the protected species and habitats are included, for example, in the EU Directives for Habitats and Birds. However, it is also at least as valuable to safeguard the individual occurrences of a species alone. When nature conservation is based on species and communities, as well as geological features, it can often be seen how the most valuable sites are located in the same areas. Such concentrated areas can be called biodiversity “hot spots”.

Keeping these concentrations as natural as possible serves biodiversity in particular. Besides, such hot spots can serve as a source of species support for domains which are in poor condition.

The biodiversity status should be constantly assessed

The processes of biodiversity assessment are cyclical and are updated as the amount of data increases. Such evaluations also seek to consider any overlaps between parallel systems. In a repetitive and evolving process, changes in the state of the environment at different levels emerge, allowing conservation efforts to be directed to those areas of particular importance for biodiversity. A healthy and diverse marine environment is sustainable and productive.

 Gutweed grows along the rocky surface.
Gutweed thrives in eutrophicated and nutrient-rich waters.

Biodiversity is protected by EU-directives

The European Union's Habitats and Birds Directives oblige their member states to protect areas which are important to species and habitat types. Also, these directives require that habitats be maintained to ensure the highest possible resilience of various species.

For example, a protected habitat, such as the small islands and islets of the outer archipelago, are often rich in seabirds, while their underwater habitats are also spawning grounds for fish. The need to conserve such habitats and species which require protection has led to the establishment of Natura 2000 nature protection sites.

The member states of the European Union report to the European Commission every six years on the implementation of the Habitats Directive. This report includes an assessment of the conservation status of all the habitats and species covered by the Directive. For example, the level of protection can be inferred from the effectiveness of the protection measures taken. A wide range of assessment tools and methods are necessary to know precisely where the protection measures should be targeted.

Biotopes can be identified as endangered and thus protected 

Traditionally, the most visible part of nature conservation has been the protection of endangered species. However, emerging alongside this is the protection of important and increasingly rare habitats and species communities. Biotopes, also known as habitat types, are protected by legislation and international treaties, as well as national parks, nature parks, and other protected areas.

In Finland, an assessment system for endangered biotopes, known as LuTU evaluates habitat types rather than individual species, i.e. species communities in different environments. They consist of species groups which occur under certain conditions, as well as from lifeless environments. The LuTU evaluation can be applied to the criteria developed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The Baltic Sea is assessed by one of eight expert groups. A biotope’s threat level is assessed based on changes in its quantity and quality, as well as its rarity and the threats to it. The 2018 assessment used the Red List of Ecosystems criteria developed by the IUCN.

 The bedrock on the left is covered with multicoloured filamentous algae and bushes of bladder wrack.
The bedrock is completely covered by brown, green, and red algae.

A new way of thinking is needed to protect habitat types

In addition to protected areas, efforts can be made to conserve habitat types by considering them when planning land-use, as well as in the sustainable use of natural resources. The status of endangered biotopes can be improved by restoration.

Also in Finland, improving the conservation of habitat types requires new actions, as well as the development of existing regulations. Besides statutory protection, there is also a need to develop less burdensome methods and procedures. Forms of voluntary protection should also be developed.

The threat to marine species is assessed in the International IUCN Red Book

In Finland, the assessment for endangered species, known as LAUHA, evaluates the threat level to species and sometimes to subspecies also. In the past, the mapping of marine species has long been fragmented. Also, marine environmental research has focused on areas in the proximity of marine research institutes.

The Finnish programme for mapping underwater biodiversity, known as VELMU, has also made it possible to assess the threat to marine species, based on extensive and coherent observation data.

The LAUHA assessment criteria are based on habitat evaluations from criteria developed by the IUCN. This means that the results are comparable internationally.

The results of the evaluation process will be published in the so-called Red Book or Red List. The species listed in the book can be protected under the Decree of Nature Conservation. The IUCN List of Threatened Species includes all species assessed according to the current classification of endangered species, including those classified as being of “least concern”.
The Red List also includes other assessment categories such as endangered, vulnerable, extinct or data deficient. It is also good to consider the intrinsic or genetic diversity of the species. Specifically, distinct populations may differ from each other, which may have implications for conservation measures.