Marine Ecosystem Services Restoration & Management

Impact: Environmental, Economic

Description of impact

Heriot-Watt University research into critically important biogenic habitats and the ecosystem services they provide continues to shape policy and management objectives in international maritime spatial planning initiatives. This research has led to significant economic and policy impacts by: providing exemplars of marine habitat restoration inspiring international proliferation of similar initiatives; working with nature in a widely publicized novel corporate partnership; shaping government policies and plans to promote sustainable practices through marine management and stimulated the growth of new oyster restoration supply chains for the NE Atlantic from the economically fragile Scottish Highlands.


In REF 2014 HWU research was shown to be instrumental in global marine spatial planning initiatives, particularly those focused on biogenic habitats, including the designation and management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Panama, Colombia, Galápagos and Europe. HWU research has since expanded our expertise providing underpinning evidence to support conservation policy implementation and management of protected biogenic reef habitats, and their Ecosystem Services (ES), across North East Atlantic Europe.

The Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project (DEEP: Sanderson, Mair, Harries, Henry and Porter) is a collaboration between HWU, The Glenmorangie Company and the Marine Conservation Society. The business interest is in the mitigation of organic discharges into the adjacent marine environment by exploiting the remediative biofiltration (ES) of oyster reefs which concomitantly increases biodiversity through the provision of oyster reef structure and function. Good environmental stewardship has added brand value. DEEP has pioneered, demonstrated and enhanced restoration of the historically widespread native oyster; demonstrating that restoration can be accomplished across the European Atlantic MPA network. Press coverage measured as ‘Opportunity to See’ has reached 1,000,000 to 865,000,000 people in years 2016 to 2020.

A research has contributed directly to the development of UK Environment Agency and UK Department of the Environment Fisheries & Rural Affairs agenda 2025, restoring UK coastal marine habitats. The UK Environment Agency stated that they used the approach taken by the HWU partnership in Scotland as inspiration for a new Environment Agency initiative; Restoring Meadow, Marsh and Reef (ReMeMaRe) and in 2019 organised for the first time in the UK a successful international conference on estuarine and coastal habitat restoration: Restoring Estuarine and Coastal Habitats (REACH). This was widely attended including Ministers and Chairs of government bodies. The initiative is now sponsored by the Defra Group which includes JNCC, the Marine Management Organisation, Natural England and Cefas as well as the Crown Estate and Inshore Fisheries Conservation Authorities.

It has led to the development of the first UK and Ireland Oyster Restoration manual (now a model for seagrass, saltmarsh and beneficial use of dredged material manuals), the first oyster biosecurity workshop hosted by the Native Oyster Restoration Alliance at HW in January 2019, the development of oyster restoration potential maps for England, and; has culminated in a multi-million bid to Defra and HMT under the 4 year strategic review for additional funds for restoration of not only oysters, but seagrass and saltmarsh too.

Senior Estuary and Coast Planning Manager at the UK Environment Agency said it "….proved to be a defining moment for the future of marine environmental protection and recovery in the UK …", and has, “demonstrated … how practical intervention could actually help to restore habitats that have been lost”, and, “all of this inspired by Heriot-Watt and Dr Sanderson’s work in the Dornoch Firth”. 

Furthermore, the work is cited by an increasing number of community-based restoration projects and SMEs as inspiration and proof of concept:
“As a result, we have secured funding from the National Lottery GBP225,000 to establish Scotland’s first community-led native oyster restoration project at Craignish...”, Project Coordinator, Seawilding. 
Involved in DEEP…[we]...have created a spin-out company called The Native Oyster & Shellfish Company Ltd.”, NOSCO Ltd.

The unique DEEP business collaboration with one of the world’s leading whisky distillers has revolutionised the approach taken to marine conservation and restoration and recognised in multiple awards 1,2,3,4,5, including the Guardian Award for University Business Collaboration. It also provides a marine exemplar of ‘working with nature’ to remediate human impacts. Together, DEEP partners have developed a restoration pathway with global applicability in temperate systems that has helped inspire and inform other marine restoration projects across Europe, not least through the hosting of the Native Oyster Restoration Alliance conference in 2019 (155 participants; 15 countries). The DEEP business collaboration is already bringing about a range of benefits including:

The development and increase in oyster reef habitat in the Dornoch Firth 
Biofiltration by the oyster reef with associated water quality benefits 
Benefiting the rural economy and the native oyster supply chain, evaluated by an independent Scottish government report as having the potential to create up to 50 FTE jobs and GBP3,000,000 GVA in fragile rural communities

Sanderson has presented the research in partnership with Glenmorangie’s Directors of CSR and Operations, in diverse settings from the local communities and at international events. The science underlying the project has-shaped the whisky industry’s approach to CSR; reaching tens of thousands of members of the public on whisky tours, festivals and open days and generating media coverage worth an advertising equivalent of >GBP15,000,000. The project has inspired stakeholders across many countries, elevating the reputation of partners and forging a new frontier in restoration at the start of the 2021 UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

Sanderson, Mair, Harries, and Porter’s ecosystem services (ES) research has demonstrated the habitat provisioning value of biogenic shellfish habitats for commercial species and has become a key driver of enhanced protection by Scottish Government such that policy and management advice for Scottish Priority Marine Features now delivers enhanced protection from fishing impacts. Furthermore, there is mounting evidence of significant ES value in the carbon stores generated through biogenic habitats (Sanderson, Mair, Harries). As part of the Scottish Government’s objective to lead the world in adopting evidence-based policies to mitigate climate change, Porter and Want’s audit of blue carbon resources for Orkney is the most comprehensive regional audit of blue carbon anywhere in the world. Porter, Woolf, Bell, Johnson, McWhinnie, Kerr and Fernandes subsequently undertook a review of the Orkney State of Environment Assessment where blue carbon, pressures and sensitivity data have been incorporated as a basis for the statutory Orkney Marine Spatial Plan (a regional extension of the Scottish State of Environment Plan).

1. VIBES Awards 2017 (winner of Hydro Nation Award)
2. Walpole British Luxury Awards 2017 (winner of ‘Luxury With a Heart’)
3. RSPB Nature of Scotland Awards 2017 (winner of Corporate Award)
5. Brave New World Foundation Lighthouse Award 2020
Impact statusAchieved
Impact date1 Jan 201531 Dec 2020
Category of impactEnvironmental, Economic
Impact levelInternational


  • 2021