There has always been a healthy competition amongst the marine research laboratory community to lay claim to being the first marine station founded.

Most now agree that Pierre-Joseph van Beneden established the first marine station in Ostend, Belgium in 1843. Interestingly even then, this involved collaboration with industry and attention to the undoubted socioeconomic benefits of marine research as well as the increasing habit of ‘taking the waters’ at the coast so beloved in Victorian England. van Beneden located this first laboratory (‘The Dune Laboratory’) at the Valcke-Deknuyt oyster farm and adjacent to the now famous leisure beaches of Ostend which even at that time were becoming popularized, not least by the Belgian royal family, as a place to relax and enjoy the health promoting effects of the coast. Van Beneden had almost certainly been inspired to set up this laboratory by a colony of Swedish and other naturalists that gathered each summer on the Swedish west coast to carry out marine research. At the time they would hire seaside huts and boathouses from local fishermen; these fishermen would also bring them marine specimens. This research would later lead to the formation of the Kristineberg Marine Station (1877), which joined an illustrious family of stations in what was in many respects a (first) Golden Age of marine stations and included Concarneau (1859), Naples and Roscoff (both 1872), and the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth (1884).

Station Biologique de Roscoff. Image: W. Thomas / Station Biologique de Roscoff ( CNRS/UPMC)

 There are fascinating parallels from this period that have resonance with the modern day marine biologist. Many of these early marine biologists had been trained in medicine and quickly recognized the potential of marine organisms for providing answers to important questions in biology. This thread has remained with the last 50 or more years seeing many Nobel laureates emerge from the ranks of marine biologists1.

Image: Kristineberg Marine Station (left).

Since their inauguration in the latter half of the 19th century there has been a long-standing tradition of sharing facilities and access in marine laboratories. Currently we are seeing a reawakening of this spirit of cooperation with the advent of the ‘omic’ sciences, climate change, and the importance of ‘ocean observation’ accompanied by the critical need to share and integrate data. This, the new frontier for the marine sciences, is exemplified by the creation of consortia of marine laboratories, best known in Europe from programmes such as the European Marine Biological Resource Centre (EMBRC). One of the objectives of EMBRC is to promote the application of genomics and systems biology to biomedical sciences, marine biology and ecology. This will bring about the long-awaited ‘marriage’ between large scale global considerations and biological systems (environment and human impact on it, human health and sustainable exploitation). Marine model organisms have a historical and future role in basic cutting edge biological research (see Nobel laureates mentioned earlier) and in the future models should be selected which have an ecological significance as well as a medical “value”. This dynamic is the front where the main future development of marine biology will be.

    To facilitate this, Europe is leading a global initiative to coordinate activities between the European Network of Marine Research Institutes and Stations (MARS) and other international groupings such as the National Association of Marine Laboratories in the USA (NAML) under the banner of the World Association of Marine Laboratories (WAMS). One of the driving issues for WAMS will be to develop its action plan with a focus on capacity building in less well-developed regions, which are often those most impacted by climate change together with anthropogenic exploitation. The WAMS action plan therefore highlights (See: Objectives of the World Association of Marine Stations) those issues crucial for the protection and sustainability of our seas and oceans.This exciting prospect has the support of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO and should herald a second Golden Age for marine research stations.

    Since those early days, marine research stations have been established all around the world and serve a vital role in science and in the wider community (See: Role of marine laboratories in the modern world). In this respect, marine laboratories should be considered ‘windows on the ocean’ and ideal places for the study of marine life as well wonderful places for the public to see research taking place. The role of marine laboratories is also to provide opportunities for the public to enhance their ‘ocean literacy’, an issue of increasing importance in these days where climate change and its impacts on our seas and oceans is becoming a daily discussion point in the media.

    The Marine Biological Association, Plymouth (right). Image: Keith Hiscock.

    Objectives of the World Association of Marine Stations

    • Identifying interest and major gaps from participating countries, for example from Africa, South America and Asia.
    • Making contact with potential new members from these and other areas.
    • Determine how best to contribute to IOC activities in research, education and training.
    • Promote and participate in workshops to develop project ideas that fulfil global needs, specifically in relation to climate change impacts on marine ecosystems and ecosystem services. 
    • Encourage ‘bottom-up’ science-based discussions.
    • Identify common training needs and opportunities for all staff, both scientists and technical and administrative support personnel.
    • To cooperate with on-going IOC programmes such as OBIS.
    • To explore further scientific partnerships.
    • To support the 20 points of Rio+20

    Role of marine laboratories in the modern world

    • Provide access to marine ecosystems including valuable (historical) time-series data.
    • Provide access to marine models for biomedicine, ecotoxicology, biodiversity and gene discovery.
    • Provide logistics and modern equipment for ex situ experiments, in biology, long-term culture and experimental climate control.
    • Ideal for long-term ecological research, real time data collection and detecting change.
    • Inexpensive test-beds for new ocean instrumentation.
    • Base stations for ocean observing systems, buoys, cabled arrays and submersibles.
    • Support bases for research vessels and research entailing diving.
    • Places to integrate social science and natural science research and education

    Many people will associate a marine station with being somewhere which features on a David Attenborough TV programme and is a nice place to visit with an attractive coastal location. While this is, of course, true, it is important for us all to recognize the enormous socio-economic benefits to be obtained by a greater and deeper knowledge about marine organisms and ecosystems. First, the sea provides amazing biological diversity (of 34 fundamental phyla, 17 occur on land, whereas 32 occur in the sea and 13 are exclusively marine). This diversity and the relatively large number of exclusively marine species are the reasons why the sea is an important new source of biotechnology materials, chemicals and processes. Second, marine organisms often possess unique structures, metabolic pathways, reproductive systems and sensory and defence mechanisms because they have adapted to extreme environments ranging from the sub-zero polar seas to the great pressures of the ocean floor.

    The exploitation of marine organisms for food and industrial processes has an impact on one of the other main uses we make of the marine environment—leisure and recreation. Scaling up these processes will have a direct and tangible impact on marine ecosystems and will certainly change the way we perceive this environment. One major objective for coastal marine stations in the future will be to develop a dialogue with industry and stakeholders through research to arrive at a consensus on how to use, and not to abuse, this resource.

    As noted earlier, the wider public represents an important stakeholder group for marine stations and what we do. Until now, ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘knowledge transfer’ have mostly focused on the undoubted and apparently insatiable interest in marine life and the natural history of our coasts that exists in wider society.

    Recent years have witnessed the emergence of the ‘blue gym’ concept. This has been a natural development from the ‘green gym’ whereby positive experiences in the environment bring measurable benefits to human health and well-being. This represents a totally new way of thinking for marine laboratories and the way they might engage with the public.

    Fortunately, our colleagues in the social sciences, particularly medical sociology and public health, have a wealth of experience in this area. There is a substantial literature and research concerning the impact of environment on human health and well-being. For example, there has been increasing recognition that individual health is shaped and determined by many factors; political, economic, social, cultural, behavioural, biological and environmental factors can all favour health or be harmful to it. One of the key principles of health promotion set out by the World Health Organization (WHO) is that of ‘creating supportive environments’ recognizing that ‘the inextricable link between people and their environment constitutes the basis for a socio-ecological approach to health’ (Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, WHO, 1986).

    Health Promotion, WHO, 1986). Increasingly, health outcomes can be linked directly to environment—be that physical, social, working, living or leisure—those ‘places’ where everyday lives are enacted and those which ultimately impact life chances. Place and space have become central consid - erations in health promotion—terms which refer to far more than simply geographical location, rather the spatial context in which lives are lived. Included here is the way in which human experience interacts with the natural environment and how environ - mental or structural factors determine human behaviour. The 2010 UK Fac - ulty of Public Health report (The Great Outdoors: How our Natural Health Service uses Green Space to improve wellbeing) emphasized how ‘access to nature can significantly contribute to our mental capital and wellbeing’ and cited evidence demonstrating how green space is an important beneficial factor in tackling health and social problems such as obesity, mental ill health, anti-social behaviours and health ine - quality.

    In May 2013 the European Environment Agency published a report which recognized the limitations of environmental quality indicators in assessments of human health and drew further attention to the ways in which health, environment and social aspects are interconnected. It stated: ‘Health inequalities are pervasive in EU member states, similarly, environ - mental and socio-economic conditions, which determine the risk of people getting ill, their ability to prevent sick - ness and get access to treatment, are unequally distributed within societies’.

    We can see then, that the role of marine stations is one of continual development and evolution, reflecting societal needs, perhaps even shaping them. They have always been popular and located in popular places. Indeed, one of the earliest stations, Stazione Zoologica ‘Anton Dohrn’ founded in Naples in 1872 was built with an adjoining public aquarium to provide the public with a ‘window on the sea’, while at the same time generating income that supported research in the laboratories next door. That same year in Brittany, the marine station at Roscoff was opened in an area famous for thalassotherapy—a treatment that employs the use of sea - water, sea products and shore climate for the benefit of human health, and perhaps dates back to ancient Greek or Roman times. So, nothing is new but one thing is certain, marine stations have always been in the vanguard of social change and sensitive to the needs of society. Perhaps in the future we shall see forward thinking directors of marine laboratories working together with public health agencies to promote the marine environment as one which confers significant health and wellbeing advantages for the whole population.

    Michael Thorndyke (mike.thorndyke@ is a professor at the Department of Biology Biological and Environmental Sciences and Head of International Development at The Sven Lovén Centre for Marine Sciences. Fiona McGowan (f.mcgowan@uel. is a Senior Lecturer in Public Health at the School of Health, Sport & Bioscience, University of East London

    1.  Eccles, Hodgkin, Huxley (squid axon); Hartwell, Hunt, Nurse (urchin eggs), Tsien, and Chalfie, Shimomura (jellyfish and Green Fluorescent Protein):


    Mike Thorndyke and Fiona McGowan