Coastal development, Environment and ecosystems management, Marine and coast, Marine infrastructure, Offshore wind

Environmental DNA: A novel solution to biodiversity reporting requirements

Biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth. It plays a critical role in maintaining the health and balance of ecosystems, sustaining life and providing numerous benefits to humans – such as water, food, protection, medicine, economic growth and much more.

Several studies, including the IPBES global assessment report, show a significant decline in global biodiversity in recent decades mostly due to habitat destruction, pollution and climate change. Urgent action is needed to reverse this trend, with a focus on linking biodiversity impacts with human activities by governments and businesses. Enhancing conservation efforts is crucial to mitigate further losses and promote biodiversity restoration.

Engaging in biodiversity reporting promotes accountability and enhances impact

Monitoring and reporting on biodiversity enable businesses to better understand how their actions affect biodiversity and the risks posed by biodiversity loss not only to the planet but also to their operations and supply chains. Various reporting standards are available to provide guidelines on biodiversity reporting, including the updated GRI 101: Biodiversity 2024.

The GRI standards require businesses to disclose biodiversity changes in ecosystems which are affected or potentially affected by their activities. These standards are integral in the European Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (part of The European Green Deal), which mandates large businesses to disclose their biodiversity impact starting 2024, with middle and small-sized companies following suit in the next two years. By reporting and tracking biodiversity and ecosystem changes, businesses provide information about the ecosystem’s overall health and understand how their actions impact biodiversity. This represents a shift from traditional materiality reporting to double materiality reporting, wherein companies now report on their environmental impact alongside their business’s impact on the environment.

To comply with GRI standards for reporting on the Biodiversity Disclosure Requirements (ESRS-E4), businesses should use primary data to report on direct drivers where possible. For example, data collected through field surveys, derived from satellite imagery, or through environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis – studying genetic traces from samples (e.g., seawater) to identify species inhabiting the area.

Novel eDNA method can solve the reporting challenges and help understand, track and monitor biodiversity status

eDNA analysis involves detecting DNA traces left behind by all species in the environment. This method has been extensively researched in universities for at least a decade and is now mature enough to transition into practical application. In applied biodiversity monitoring, eDNA emerges as the leading method for detecting broad biodiversity dynamics, including changes in species presence and relative abundance.

The main benefit of eDNA analysis is that it provides an unprecedented biodiversity resolution which allows us to understand and report on subtle biodiversity dynamics. For instance, when we observe a decline in mussel numbers, eDNA helps us understand that it can be due to an increase in predators such as starfish. This holistic view of biodiversity helps explain ecosystem dynamics and prevents unwarranted conclusions, such as attributing negative impacts solely to anthropogenic marine activities.

This method is also particularly good at detecting rare and cryptic species, as well as endangered or non-native species. eDNA analysis is non-invasive as it only requires a small water or sediment sample, compared to some of the conventional survey methods using destructive sampling like trawling. Surveys can be conducted from small boats or autonomous underwater vehicles, and DHI is engaged in efforts to automate eDNA sampling for marine operators to reduce monitoring time and ensure standardised and safe sampling.

Currently, eDNA analysis is used as a complementary method to conventional surveys, but companies (together with environmental protection agencies) are looking into whether it can be a potential replacement. Additionally, the multivariate eDNA data feeds nicely into biodiversity quantification frameworks such as EBM BioQ. Such matrices can be used for reporting and also yield inferences on changes in ecosystem services and state.

Get started on eDNA analysis

The novelty of this method means that there are only a few companies that provide the services of analysing eDNA. Operators should go with companies that can provide end-to-end services – from advising on survey design and strategy, collecting eDNA samples, conducting the analysis and reporting the results. DHI’s strong domain knowledge in the marine industry, combined with our hydrodynamic models, can provide excellent support for eDNA sampling strategies as well as inferences of the results. We can apply the EBM BioQ analysis to the eDNA results and provide a tangible score for the ecosystem state. We are also actively working on developing automated eDNA procedures for a wider and more standardised applicability.

The value of eDNA lies in the ability to display the broad diversity of the ecosystem in which you operate to your clients and shareholders, emphasising the species you help conserve by working with nature. eDNA analysis also holds the potential for detecting exceptionally high diversity, endangered species, and warning communities about invasive or harmful species. And once you have seen the details of eDNA analysis, that will be the data you want to base your decisions on moving forward. So, whether your company has routinely reported on biodiversity before or if this reporting is new, I suggest starting to use eDNA analysis to get detailed and informative biodiversity data on which you can base your biodiversity impact reporting.

Related reading:

New method reveals animal life on the seabed (in Danish)

DNA traces reveal marine life at Fehmarnbelt tunnel construction site

Marine ecologists share crucial tips to improve biodiversity quantification