Ecological and Engineering… can they go hand in hand?


By Camilla Bertolini


I have recently attended the 11th International Temperate Reef Symposium. I came back with much sought after inspiration and ideas for current and future work but also with many questions.

One of the thematic of the symposium was ecosystem management, and as part of this there were many interesting talks on the enhancing of coastal structures for biodiversity and restoration of ecosystems.

Needless to say, it is important that as ecologists we recognise that urbanisation of the coasts is not only something that we cannot stop but something that is necessary. Sea level rise, increased storminess, increased recreational use of our coasts for tourisms are all valid reasons to add urban structures and simply saying “no” will likely not lead to anywhere useful. However, adding urban structure to the marine environment as it is currently done is unsustainable and it is leading to loss of suitable habitats for many species, facilitating invasive species spread (a clean slate of concrete is likely going to act as a stepping stone for opportunistic invasive species) and generally causing unwanted changes to the environment.

But would it be really hard to reproduce natural habitats?

Many projects have been looking at ways to enhance the structures, although I feel that we are still behind. Firstly many of these projects have been conducted over small scales – some are student projects (including my undergraduate dissertation thesis…) and only used small areas of concrete walls, concrete tiles. Secondly, most studies have been concentrated in limited areas (Sidney harbour, for example, has been very well studied!). Lastly, but most importantly, some of the “enhancements” have not been thought from an engineering prospective. How will the addition of elements, such as pits and groves, affect the structure over time? How feasible is it to add over a large scale? And how much money will it cost to a company?

Example of ecologically engineered seawall
Example of ecologically engineered seawall


Ecological enhancements
Ecological enhancements

It was very interesting hearing talks from other countries (I am thinking Australia again) where the engineers are very happy to help and companies are willing to try out new ideas. I am wondering if it is the same in other countries, and what can be done to inform companies, engineers and the public on the importance of these steps for our marine ecosystem health. I think that there is still much to be learnt, but a way to start would be to incorporate some elements of environmental/ecological engineering in all of new developments. Although, sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case….



New development for sea walls with no ecological "enhancements"
New development for sea walls with no ecological “enhancements”

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