The context was symbolic, the island of Malta rightfully sitting in the middle of the Mediterrean basin, between the Southernmost European countries and Northern Africa. An ideal communication stepping stone bridging these most diverse realities, which still share the immense wealth of the Mediterranean Sea.
The event “BLUEMED – A Basin of Research and Innovation for Sustainable Growth” was held on the 18th – 19th of April, 2017, in Sliema (Malta). The meeting aimed to open up this strategic initiative to non-EU Mediterranean Partner Countries, for the first time, with the aim to initiate a strategic think-tank for a cooperative endeavour within the Mediterranean region, and unlock the area’s potential for Blue Growth, at local, regional and international level.
This marine cradle, which bred among the most influential cultures of the planet, now faces the challenges of the Anthropocene, with the overheating of its waters, pollution, and overfishing. It is also an area that has shown lower inclination to innovation, perhaps due to the long stance of the traditional sectors such as fishing and maritime transportation. However, the marine biodiversity, deep-sea resources and tourist interest, make the Mediterranean a major sea of opportunities of blue growth.
Fully consistent with the aims of the EU Blue Growth strategy, the BLUEMED initiative is based on a strong coordination between research, industry and policy at national, regional and EU level. The two-day event programme was effectively crafted to provide an eagle-eye view of the area’s potential by showcasing a large number of relevant projects and initiatives connecting the Mediterranean actors and promoting further collaborative actions on innovative activities along the value chain. From research infrastructures based on marine stations along the EU coastal perimeter, furnishing the instruments for advanced investigations of the marine environment and its potential for new biomaterials and aquaculture; to basin wide commercial transportation initiatives looking for solutions to improve their energy efficiency or otherwise greening their brand; to education initiative which can help citizens understand the value of the sea; and much, much more.
Supported by the European Commission (DG R&I, DG MARE, DG JRC), the BLUEMED initiative was jointly developed and agreed between Cyprus, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain, and adopted as a priority of the Programme of the Italian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, in 2014, “working with the Commission and Member States to define a Blue Growth flagship initiative for the Mediterranean.” The information gathered from consultations with the relevant policy, scientific and industry stakeholders, as well as the analysis of about 900 projects, produces a map of the needs and gaps in research and innovation, which formed the basis for the BLUEMED Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA), finally adopted by 10 countries by signing the Venice Declaration on Mediterranean Sea Cooperation, in October 2015.
The importance of having an ispirational strategic project emerged, for instance, in the sector of aquaculture. Fish productivity in the Mediterranean is far different to that of the Atlantic, bordered by many EU countries. So, sea aquaculture requires strict rules and regulations. The variety of fish species and a different use of coastal areas lead to very different production volumes between the two areas. However, this is not due to lack of technology or methodology. Still, missing a strategic framework provided a sense of being inadequate to compete with the high-achiever in the Atlantic.
The representation of the Northern African counterpart was rather poor. The scene was ideal to bring in a broader audience from those countries and learn about their interests and needs, while pitching for the knowledge and the technology Europe could offer.
Coordination and Support
A Coordination and Support Action (CSA BlueMed), funded with €3 million by the European Commission, has started in 2015, under the coordination of the Research Council (CNR) of Italy, to enable the BlueMed mission and activate a sustainable “blue” innovation and growth in the Mediterranean basin, by integrating the knowledge and efforts of relevant countries, connecting the research community, the policy makers, the private sector, and the civil society.
During the kick-off meeting, in November 2016, in Rimini, Italy, in the setting of Ecomondo, the international exhibition on Green and Circular Economy, John Bell, Director for Bioeconomy of the Directorate General for Research and Innovation of the Commission, remarked that “growth and solutions have to happen where people live, i.e. locally.”
In particular, considering the nature of the Mediterranean economies, strongly depending on activities like tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, and the maritime transport, it is time for deploying the full potential of the maritime sector and “for the BLUEMED to emerge, moving from concept to realization also engaging non-EU countries.”
During the event, Ms Sigi Gruber, Head of the Marine Resource Unit of the EU Commission’s Directorate for Research and Innovation, chaired the various sessions on research project and activities and highlighted how the synergy between research projects and Research Infrastructures (RIs) is key to delivering on the innovation agenda at a local level.
This appears particularly true in the case of those distributed Research Infrastructure that have their installations in remote coastal regions, far from main university centres or cities. These installations are on the other hand connected into an European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC) of pan EU and international interest, and part of the ESFRI (European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures) landscape of RIs.
The cases presented were those of the EMBRC – European Marine Biological Resource Centre; and EMSO – European Multidisciplinary Seafloor and Water-Column Observatory.
The former has the ambition to act as a regional innovation engine, working in collaboration with the local authorities to support an innovation ecosystem based on marine bioresource.
EMBRC provide the state of the art instrumentation and the biological and ecological knowledge to support the needs of small-medium enterprises in terms of technological support and scientific advice.
From the conversations around the various communications, it also emerged that the collaboration among the various RIs is essential to set up the monitoring tools and organize the information to assess the state of the ocean in a way that will be useful in some 25 years.
BLUEMED: Responding to Challenges
The BlueMed Vision Document, written in October 2015, indicates the following “key challenges” to be addressed to achieve project goals:
1) Enabling technologies and capacity creation
- Guarantee environmental sustainable performances, as well as maritime surveillance and security by “greening” vessels, ports and other maritime platforms;
- Combine renewable energy production, aquaculture, maritime surveillance and environmental monitoring at off-shore platforms.
2) Enabling support knowledge
- Explore the vulnerability of Mediterranean Sea ecosystems, including the deep sea ecosystems;
- Improve regional and sub-regional scenarios for climate changes and impacts;
- Use multipurpose observatories and early warning/defence systems;
- Address the sources, distribution and evolution of emerging pollutants and promote remediation actions.
3) Sectorial enablers
- Support sustainable exploitation of the Mediterranean biodiversity for bio-based innovative industries and services;
- Pursue the ecosystem-based management of aquaculture and fisheries;
- Develop sustainable tourism.
European Marine Biological Resource Centre, www.embrc.eu
European Multidisciplinary Seafloor and water-column Observatory, www.emso-eu.org/site
Top image: Corbetta, 1853 – Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain