Advancing Biodiversity Monitoring in Marine Eco-Engineering

  • March 22, 2024

Nature Inclusive Design (NID) is emerging as a key consideration in the construction of environmentally friendly manmade infrastructure. One such application involves eco-engineered armouring, where artificial reef structures are designed to enhance marine biodiversity. A pioneering study, conducted off the UK south Devon coast, sheds light on the efficacy of these structures, providing a crucial understanding of their impact on invertebrate biodiversity and the alteration of natural ecosystems.







Post-installation, eDNA identified a significant increase in biodiversity within artificial reef structures compared to control sites

Ratio of the variance for species counts per functional feeding group between reef & control sites relative to variance within each group

Number of sedimentary species demonstrating significant increases in population genetic diversity resulting from artificial reef installation

Applied Genomics Ltd., based in Norwich, UK, employed environmental DNA (eDNA) techniques to investigate marine sediment samples in and around the artificial reef structures before and after installation. Unlike traditional sampling methods, eDNA allows for a comprehensive analysis of genetic material present in the environment, providing a nuanced view of the biodiversity within a given habitat.

The study aimed to assess the success of eco-engineered armouring in promoting Biodiversity Net Gain, a concept increasingly emphasised by regulators and statutory bodies globally. Biodiversity Net Gain seeks to ensure that anthropogenic activities contribute positively to biodiversity, a goal that aligns with the principles of Nature Inclusive Design.

A Before-After Control-Impact (BACI) study design was adopted to accurately evaluate the ecological impact of interventions. Employing this methodology enabled Applied Genomics to distinguish between natural variations and the actual effects of the artificial reef structures on marine biodiversity.

The eDNA analysis focused on key parameters, including taxonomic richness, taxonomic diversity, and genetic diversity of various species. Results revealed a significantly higher biodiversity of invertebrates around the artificial reef structures, with specific taxa such as benthic epifauna, suspension feeders, and carnivores exhibiting notable diversity. Intriguingly, the eDNA analysis also detected a rich assemblage of genetic material from sedimentary infaunal organisms within and near the artificial reef structures.

The findings suggest that the design features of the artificial reef structures, with their internal void spaces, contribute positively to biodiversity enhancement and mitigate the impact of anthropogenic activities on underlying natural ecosystems. This marks a pivotal advancement in the field of marine eco-engineering, showcasing the potential for low-footprint solutions compared to solid manmade structures.

The use of eDNA analysis in this study provides a comprehensive and efficient means to assess genetic diversity across various taxonomic levels. This not only enhances our understanding of the immediate impacts of eco-engineered structures but also paves the way for more informed and effective conservation strategies.

The integration of eDNA analysis in monitoring the biodiversity effects of artificial reef structures signifies a major leap forward in marine eco-engineering. Applied Genomics’ contribution to this work underscores the importance of advanced scientific techniques in evaluating the success of Nature Inclusive Design. As humanity continues to expand globally, this research provides a crucial framework for sustainable and nature-friendly infrastructure in marine seascapes.

Figure 1: Non-metric Multidimensional Scaling (NMDS) plot depicting the beta diversity of metazoan communities from a Before-After Control-Impact (BACI) study design. Sample points reflect metazoan community composition 'inside' (IN), 'near' (OUT), and 'away' (CTRL) from eco-engineered armouring installations, with 'before' installation samples marked in green and 'after' installation samples in brown. Contour lines represent gradients of species richness, illustrating an increase in diversity at the 'after' Artificial reef sites compared to 'before' installation and control sites.

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