Portugal’s return to the oceans

 In Conference, IPBN, News, Oceans Research & Technology, Original

Portuguese scientists are leading the way in Europe in oceans innovation and research but the EU needs to create a European Oceans Agency to coordinate and capitalise on the economic opportunities it offers says the Centre of Marine and Environmental Research. (CiiMar)

Text: Chris Graeme; Photo: IPBN

Portugal is well placed between the US, Canada and Europe to research and investigate some of the pressing and urgent problems facing the North Atlantic Ocean from plastic pollution and rising sea levels to increased sea temperatures according to the two scientists that spoke at the Irish-Portuguese Business Network (IPBN ) ‘Ocean Conference’, which took place at Porto Business School on October 25.

Organised in partnership Centre of Marine and Environmental Research (CiiMar), Panel 1 of the all-day conference focused on the advances that the port city of Matosinhos is taking in the maritime world in an effort to highlight the synergies and potential partnerships that exist with Ireland.

The first panel featured a conversation with two academics from the Universities of Porto and Coimbra respectively about their latest science and research papers, and how CiiMAR is advancing that knowledge and pushing toward innovation: Vitor Vasconcelos, Professor at the University of Porto and President of the Board at CiiMAR (pictured left) and Fernando Seabra Santos, Professor at the University of Coimbra (pictured right).

Moderated by IPBN Chair of the Porto Committee John Paul Prior, the two described the Whale4 submarine concept for research and tourism, as well as information on marine & environmental marine science research from over 180 Ph.D. students and how their +500 published articles have identified key elements in the fight for sustainability in our oceans.

Upsetting the ecological balance

Vítor Vasconcelos, who holds a Ph.D. in Biology, is a full professor at the Faculty of Sciences of Porto University (FCUP) and simultaneously is the director of CIIMAR, and the Director of the Group of Blue Biotechnology and Ecotoxicology (LEGE lab), spoke about the negative impact mankind was having on the ocean ecosystem.

“The temperatures of the sea are rising and whereas it should be between 13ºC and 14ºC off the coast at Matosinhos, we are currently registering temperatures of 19ºC”, he said by way of example.

“Sea organisms are affected by these rising temperatures because they cannot adapt, and so many of them simply move north. This has economic implications as fishermen have to go further afield to fish, but also has environmental consequences with the great Northern Atlantic kelp forests receding northwards, and these harbour an entire biodiversity chain, as well as bringing in non-native invasive species which proliferate and upset the ecological balance”, he explained.

But it isn’t just higher ocean temperatures that are causing problems. The amount of plastics in the oceans, including micro-plastics, is also having a detrimental effect on the entire food chain, including us.

“It is easy to see, wherever you go, the rubbish and plastic on the beach here at Matosinhos. People are not recycling and placing their garbage in the bins. Micro-plastics are a serious problem, they absorb toxins, the fish ingest them, and we eat the fish. There is an urgent need to impede plastics from entering the ocean”, said the scientist who is responsible for the LEGE culture collection comprising more than 400 strains of cyanobacteria and has published 280 papers in Toxicology and Biotechnology.

Submarine technology

Fernando Seabra Santos, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Grenoble (France) in Physical Oceanography, and was the first coordinator of the Degree in Environmental Engineering at FCTUC, as well as having served as Rector of the University of Coimbra between 2003 and 2011 and from 2007 to 2010, in addition to holding the position of president of the Council of Rectors of Portuguese Universities, discussed an exciting project to produce the smallest and one of the most sophisticated manned research submarines.

The founder of Friday – Ciência e Engenharia do Lazer, SA, a company that aims to conceive, design, build, and sell nautical devices with a high technology and innovation component, explained how the company aims to “design, develop, construct and market nautical devices with a high technology component.

“This is a small submarine for research. We have a very sound research system that is able to produce very high quality results from research and such a system is key for the economy of knowledge.

“It’s about bringing together universities, industry and companies which are all very important for a knowledge-based economy for the next generation”, said Fernando Seabra Santos.

The submarine, the smallest of its kind, will have a capacity for two passengers, dive 300 metres, conduct 8-hour missions, and have a 36-hour emergency capacity

Friday – Ciência e Engenharia do Lazer, SA. Is a spun-off of the University of Coimbra that arose after 30 years of research in various relevant scientific areas (Structural Engineering, Electro-Technical Engineering, IT Engineering, Design and Architecture).

The company collates knowledge in all these areas and has close collaborative relationships with various universities and institutions to also design and sell technologically advanced devices and equipment that can be adapted for water leisure actives.

The company is also considered a leader in floating home design a with floating houses that can be produced and assembled anywhere on four continents. So far prototypes have been assembled in Zanzibar, China (near Beijing), France and the US.

Portugal’s Exclusive Economic Zone

Despite the ecological challenges facing the oceans, not to mention deep sea mining, which in itself poses a whole host of questions on its sub-sea environmental impact, Vítor Vasconcelos was optimistic for the future.

“We have an incredible resource that is right in front of us and Portugal is well placed to take advantage of it” he said referring to the 5th largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) within Europe, the 3rd largest of the EU, and the 20th largest EEZ in the world, at 1,727,408 km2.

“There is a lot of funding from the EU but no global understanding. We need to take and manage the ocean as a whole. We have a European Space Agency and send many millions on satellites, yet we don’t even have a European Oceans Agency,” he lamented.

However, Vítor Vasconcelos remembered that Portugal had a long experience of the oceans stretching back centuries.

“After the 15th and 16th centuries we had our backs to the ocean, and now it’s time for new adventures, and we are leading in many of the research areas. We now need to focus at a European level, otherwise we will have many Asian countries exploiting our oceans,” he concluded.