Wadden Sea serves as pilot region to UNESCO on environmental DNA sampling

The UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris is conducting a global citizen science initiative on environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling in the UNESCO World Heritage marine sites. The 50 sites form a network with worldwide importance for the protection of biodiversity. The Wadden Sea World Heritage site was selected one of the pilot regions in the eDNA expedition project (www.unesco.org/en/edna-expeditions) and the first of 25 sites to do the sampling. From 21-26 September 2022, samples will be collected at five different locations along the Wadden Sea coast, coordinated by the Common Wadden Sea Secretariat (CWSS).

Ocean species shed DNA into the water around them. The genetic material from waste, mucus or cells in one litre of water can determine the species richness in a given area, without the need to actually extract organisms from their environment. The cost effective, ethical nature of eDNA sampling has the potential to revolutionize knowledge about ecosystems and species diversity and to inspire the next generation of ocean researchers. By collecting the samples, the project helps measure marine biodiversity and the impacts of climate change on the distribution patterns of marine life across UNESCO World Heritage marine sites.

The eDNA project is supported by citizen scientists. In the Wadden Sea, children with help of site managers and NGOs are involved in the sampling. UNESCO’s aim is to through the participation of local youth in the collection of eDNA, raise awareness of the importance of the protection of the UNESCO World Heritage marine sites. “This is an innovative approach that we are honoured to be part of”, says Bernard Baerends, CWSS Executive Secretary. “As one Wadden Sea, we work together to support the eDNA expeditions initiative, and thereby the global network, sharing a snapshot of marine life in our World Heritage site. The citizen science approach is also an ideal opportunity to inspire and educate the next generation of ocean scientists.” The Wadden Sea is of Outstanding Universal Value and as home for many species and is of global importance for many migratory species such as marine mammals, birds and fish. The sampling was done near Esbjerg (Denmark), at Nordstrand, Neuwerk and Wilhelmshaven (Germany), and will be conducted on Texel (Netherlands) together with the Danish Wadden Sea National Park, the German Wadden Sea National Park Authorities and the Dutch Waddenvereniging.

The eDNA project focuses on fish, which is also a strong focus within the Trilateral Wadden Sea Cooperation. In the framework of the so-called Swimway Initiative, fish experts from Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands work together in the Expert Group Swimway. The initiative has a formulated vision and action plan to deepen the understanding of as well as create public awareness on fish migration. The eDNA data will further complement the regular fish monitoring done in the Wadden Sea within the Trilateral Monitoring and Assessment Programme. “We are quite excited for the results and hope to find eDNA traces of rarities such as sharks and rays or even believed-to-be former inhabitants of the Wadden Sea,” says Baerends.

The data collection period in all sites with end in April 2023. All data will be made available to the site management and be integrated in the open access ocean database “UNESCO Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS)”.