Using underwater inventories for the conservation of marine areas in Finland

In 2004, the Ministry of Environment and the Finnish Environment Institute launched a Finnish Inventory Programme for Underwater Marine Environment, entitled VELMU. The aim is to develop a detailed and complete picture of the distribution of marine habitats and species in Finnish marine waters, and gain an insight into their conservation status.

So far over 150 000 spatially explicit observations have been collected of marine habitats and species from across the entire marine waters in Finland, making this the most all-encompassing national programme for marine areas in Europe. The data have been collected through scuba diving, video methods, benthic sampling, nets, echo-sounding and remote sensing. The field data have been combined with data on environmental variables and human activities at sea to produce spatial distribution models for functionally important, rare, and threatened species.

This information has been analysed using state-of-the-art statistical methods, including machine learning, systematic conservation tools and supercomputing, to produce the first integrated map of marine nature values for Finland. The analysis reveals that the current protected areas only cover around one fourth of the highest nature values. The study also shows that the biodiversity hotspots are very scattered, and that the protection coverage of nature values could be doubled by adding just one percent more to the protected area coverage (from 10% to 11%).

The VELMU data and spatial analyses have been used to develop the marine Natura 2000 areas, e.g. in SW Finland, and for reporting under the EU Habitats Directive. The nature value maps have also been used to describe around 200 “EMMAs” - Ecologically Significant Marine Areas - in Finland’s marine region. The EMMAs are based on CBD – UN Convention on Biodiversity - Ecologically or Biologically Significant Areas (EBSA) criteria, which have been applied on a spatial scale relevant for national conservation planning. In addition to developing the Natura 2000 network, the survey results can also be used in planning for the sustainable use of marine areas, avoiding excess pressures on the highest nature values.

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