MAELSTROM’s flash interviews #5 | The environmental assessment of Bubble Barrier Vila do Conde: Q&A with Luis Vieira (CIIMAR)

We have talked extensively about the recently implemented Bubble Barrier in Vila do Conde (here you can find our recent interview with the team from our partner, The Great Bubble Barrier, who developed it). However, the implementation of the system is only one part of the activities planned in our project: MAELSTROM aims to ensure the sustainability of its technologies, and thus, the project includes a thorough environmental assessment of their impact.

We discuss this with Luis Vieira from CIIMAR, the MAELSTROM partner responsible for the environmental assessment of the Bubble Barrier in the Ave River estuary.

What kind of environmental assessment will CIIMAR perform on the Bubble Barrier recently installed in the Ave River estuary? How do you determine the presence of macro- and micro-litter and what tools will you use to do this work?

The CIIMAR team will be responsible for the environmental assessment of the Bubble Barrier on the Ave estuary. Conducting a thorough ecological assessment provides a comprehensive understanding of the estuarine ecosystem, its dynamics, and the potential impacts of litter, providing a foundation of knowledge essential for the effective implementation of a marine litter removal technology, also maximizing positive impacts and its efficiency. Several parameters were evaluated before the implementation of the Bubble Barrier. Macro-litter was quantified through visual monitoring during the ecosystem state assessment, whereas microplastic particles were evaluated in the water column. The presence of this debris was also co-monitored in key organisms, for example, zooplankton. The water quality and the ecosystem’s ecological status were determined through standardized metrics, including the characterization of physical and chemical parameters, and analysis of biological and hydro-morphological elements.

With the Bubble Barrier now installed in the Ave estuary, this methodology will be replicated during the next months to evaluate its efficiency and impacts. CIIMAR team developed for the first time a hydrodynamic model for the Ave estuary. This model not only supports the technology implementation but will be also crucial to anticipate future scenarios and evaluate the Bubble Barrier efficiency.

Why it is important to develop this monitoring and litter removal in estuaries? What makes these areas important globally?

Rivers act as pipelines to the ocean, channelling the waste that is dumped into their waters and conducted to the estuaries and, finally, to the oceans. Thus, acquired data on the estuarine ecosystems can contribute to a better understanding of the entry of litter into the ocean from terrestrial sources. Estuaries support a complex web of life, including a diverse range of aquatic species. Marine litter can pose a threat to this biodiversity through entanglement, ingestion, and habitat degradation. To increase the knowledge on the contamination impacts on wild populations by both anthropogenic macrolitter and microplastics, more biomonitoring studies on those areas are still and urgently needed to support appropriate management measures. In addition, these field works are being considered crucial in the scope of national and international regulations.

Addressing marine litter in estuaries is essential for preserving the ecological integrity, economic functions, and cultural significance of these critical coastal ecosystems. Implementing removal technologies in these areas represents a proactive and targeted approach to mitigating the impacts of marine litter at the source, contributing to the overall health and sustainability of estuarine environments. It also provides an opportunity for community engagement and education. Local communities often have a vested interest in the health of estuarine ecosystems, and involvement in litter removal initiatives can raise awareness and foster a sense of environmental stewardship.

You also involve many different stakeholders in your project. Can you talk a little about who these stakeholders are and how you engage them?

No matter how innovative these technological solutions are, the mission to tackle marine litter will only be successful if we involve all sectors of society in a joint effort to change.

The CIIMAR team has been responsible for facilitating the involvement of local stakeholders in the co-design and implementation of the Bubble Barrier in Vila do Conde. Starting with the inspiring work with the municipality of Vila do Conde, which has taken a proactive approach to tackling marine litter by partnering with the MAELSTROM team to co-design and implement a Bubble Barrier in the Ave River. This technology was developed by The Great Bubble Barrier, and it is co-powered through solar panels installed by the Institute for Sustainable Energy of the University of Malta.

We also coordinated the involvement of local, regional and national stakeholders such as Docapesca Portos e Lotas, S.A., the Portuguese Environmental Agency as well as the Vila do Conde Port Captaincy and the Vila do Conde – Environmental Monitoring and Interpretation Centre (CMIA), which were extremely important for the design and implementation of the system.

CIIMAR had also an important role in stakeholder engagement at both national and international levels. The team will continue to be committed to contributing to awareness-raising efforts through strategic networking at national, European and global levels, Science-Policy-Society interface activities and tools for citizen science. We developed an online interactive forum to encourage interactive thematic discussions. CIIMAR team also organized several international workshops, webinars and other online and presential events to inspire science and society to tackle marine litter.

We are proud of MAELSTROM’s international dimension and recognition, with a particular emphasis on collaborative transdisciplinary actions that link science, industry and policy. Recently, the project was highlighted as an example by the European Commission, which awarded MAELSTROM the Atlantic Project Award in the Healthy Oceans and Resilient Coasts category.

What kind of engagement activities have you done with the local community and are there more events planned for the future?

Citizen engagement initiatives have been crucial in mobilizing society to take proactive steps, raise awareness, contribute to data collection, influence policy, and foster a sense of shared responsibility for the health of the oceans. These initiatives followed the main MAELSTROM pillars, counting on vast support from national and local partners.

We believe that the first marine litter removal technology implemented in Portugal will inspire and mobilize society in the course of action for marine litter prevention and remediation policies, towards an effective and sustainable blue circular economy.

During the previous events, many of our participants asked for other initiatives, our team is already discussing the next project info days, capacity-building sessions on MAELSTROM’s technologies, and out-of-the-box cleanups. These will be key moments for awareness promotion on marine litter causes and impacts, promotion of good practices, and responsible choices and behaviours for a truly sustainable society.