In the three decades of its existence, ZMT has rapidly developed into an internationally recognised partner in tropical research and has expanded its regional research areas. In close cooperation with local partners, ZMT researchers are particularly active where coastal ecosystems are changing and their fragile balance is threatened.
Today the research projects of ZMT encompass the entire tropics. There, ZMT scientists also support the development of expertise and structures that enable sustainable coastal zone management. Many of its more than 200 employees and students come from – predominantly tropical – foreign countries.
ZMT's partnerships form a worldwide research network with a high level of expertise, which means that the institute is well positioned to deal with the major issues of the 21st century - sustainability, environmental protection, ecosystem services or coastal protection.
From the start until today
At the beginning of 1991, the "Center for Tropical Marine Ecology" was established as an affiliated institute of the University of Bremen by Professor Gotthilf Hempel, the founder of the Alfred Wegner Institute. Thus, with the tropical coasts – following Antarctica, the Arctic, and the South Atlantic – an entirely new region of the world came into the focus of the Bremen marine sciences. The main basis for the establishment of the new institute was the MADAM project (Mangrove Dynamics and Management), a ten-year project grant of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) for bilateral cooperation with Brazil. In the mid-1990s, research on coral reefs gained more and more importance for the ZMT, which coordinated the Red Sea Programme on Marine Sciences (RSP) from 1995 onwards.
The first plans for a German tropical marine institute were drawn up in the 1980s. At that time, the German Federal Government endeavoured to make a contribution to the development of sustainable management of the ecosystems of tropical coastal seas. However, there was a lack of German marine researchers with in-depth knowledge of the tropics and of scientific partners in the tropical countries to develop the ecological and socio-economic foundations.
The "Center for Marine Tropical Ecology" was founded at the beginning of 1991 by Prof. Dr. Gotthilf Hempel, the founder of the Alfred Wegner Institute for Polar and Marine Research, as an affiliated institute of the University of Bremen. Thus, after Antarctica, Arctic and South Atlantic, a completely new Earth region - the tropical coasts - came into the focus of Bremen's marine sciences. The MADAM project (Mangrove Dynamics and Management), a ten-year BMBF funding programme for bilateral cooperation with Brazil, formed an important basis for the establishment of the young institute. Research on coral reefs gained increasing importance in the mid-1990s for the ZMT, which was responsible for the Red Sea Programme in Marine Sciences (RSP) from 1995 onwards.
Early on ZMT defined scientific-ethical principles according to which it developed its projects. These "Bremen Criteria" provided for long-term studies with intensive participation of scientists from the host country and unrestricted exchange of data and information, and were also adopted as guidelines by the German Research Foundation.
In order to support environmental research and an independent environmental policy in the partner countries, ZMT expanded the training of young German scientists in the field of tropical coastal research and closely interlinked it with the training of scientists from non-European, in particular tropical regions. The aim was to win future partners for international cooperation and to ensure continuity of research activities.
The founding director Prof. Dr. Gotthilf Hempel was succeeded at the turn of the millennium by the biogeochemist Prof. Dr. Venugopalan Ittekkot, who headed the institute for ten years. He expanded his contacts in particular to the Asia-Pacific region. ZMT now also coordinated extensive research programmes with Indonesia (SPICE - Science for the Protection of Indonesian Coastal Marine Ecosystems) and China (LANCET - Land-Sea Interactions in Coastal Ecosystems of Tropical China).
The admission of the institute to the Leibniz Association in 2009, not only acknowledged the supra-regional and scientific-political significance of its research, but also created sustainable opportunities were to strengthen the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Ecology – as it was then called – in terms of personnel and research capacity.
Prof. Dr. Hildegard Westphal, a geologist, took over the leadership of ZMT in November 2010. One year later, she was elected Scientific Vice President of the Leibniz Association and held this office until 2017. At ZMT, she pushed thematic and personnel expansion – the number of employees at ZMT has tripled since she took office.
Through the expansion of the social sciences and the geosciences, ZMT's research has become increasingly interdisciplinary. Tropical ecology topics of global importance as well as complex regional problems are comprehensively examined – from their basics to practical solution strategies. Regionally, ZMT has strengthened its cooperation with Africa, for example in the framework of the Leibniz Graduate School SUTAS (Sustainable Use of Tropical Aquatic Systems) with Tanzania.
Furthermore, ZMT strengthened the targeted dialogue with scientific and non-scientific partners in Germany and tropical countries through the establishment of the Office for Knowledge Exchange.
The name change of the institute, which since 2017 has been called Leibniz Centre for Marine Tropical Research, takes into account the growing interdisciplinary breadth, which encompasses both the natural and social sciences.
In January 2017, the ZMT expanded its executive level. Dr. Nicolas Dittert is now the commercial director of the ZMT, together with the scientific director Hildegard Westphal.