Biodiversity is crucial to the health and resilience of ecosystems, as well as human populations and economies. While this is no less true in the ocean than on land, our knowledge of marine biodiversity faces unique challenges.

A coral reef. Image Credit: NOAA

Marine scientists have long worked in a piecemeal fashion to gather and share data, but growing efforts to develop a comprehensive picture of the status of marine health have recently come together in a new pilot program designed to integrate scientific data on marine biodiversity.

The program is aimed at developing a national marine biodiversity observation network (BON), which will allow scientists and policymakers to take a proactive stance in dealing with multiple threats to marine habitats, such as infectious and invasive agents, climate change, pollution, overfishing and habitat destruction. According to the working group that studied the feasibility of the project, “developing an observing network for biodiversity to understand the magnitude of these effects and predict their consequences should be a national priority.”

The National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP) sponsored a call for proposals for demonstration sites to implement the plan, and in October of 2014, the projects were launched at four locations: the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in Florida, the Monterey Bay and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuaries in California, and the Chukchi Sea in Alaska.

Sponsored by organizations including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the demonstration sites were chosen for their existing biodiversity and their status as harbingers of change. The Arctic, in particular, is experiencing warming at a faster rate than elsewhere, so its role on the front lines of climate change makes it an essential site to study.

One of the project’s main goals is to create a functional tool that links together existing data on marine ecosystems that can be used by federal and other agencies to wisely manage the oceans and North American Great Lakes.

Dr. Katrin Iken of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, is leading the research in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea. The research will use mostly traditional methods of data collection, but the success of the program will depend on the way information is integrated with existing records and other data-collection methods to offer an accessible version to all stakeholders, Iken says.

“The ultimate challenge is to link all these separate databases,” adds Dr. Frank Muller-Karger, project leader at the Florida Keys and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries. “The objective is to come up with a tool that you can hand over to an operational agency like NOAA so that they can continue doing this into the future. That is one of the biggest challenges, to put that strategy together and make sure it actually gets used.”

Iken emphasized that the project should be relevant and accessible to the Chukchi community in the Arctic. “We are also planning on having tools available that allow data to be visualized easily, for example displayed on maps,” Iken said. “Huge spreadsheets of numbers are not useful for all potential users, so making the data accessible and useable is a goal.”

This effort at data integration will focus on establishing biodiversity as it changes over time. Biodiversity is an important marker of ecosystem health and human security, but a standard measurement for biodiversity is currently lacking because different disciplines track biodiversity in different ways.

“Realistically it’s impossible to look at everything,” Muller-Karger said. “So how do you break away from the traditional view of disciplines to come to a more comprehensive sense of how your area is changing?”

One answer is to look at indices called environmental DNA. Muller-Karger describes this as “a futuristic method where you take a sample of water and all the genetic material that’s in it to determine who was in contact with this water, from microbes to whales.”

Humpback whale. Image Credit: NOAA

Iken’s team plans to use second generation DNA sequencing to identify some organism groups, such as very small animals living within the sediment called meiofauna, that have been largely missed in prior studies. According to Iken, these tiny critters respond faster than larger species to environmental change, so studying them is crucial to monitoring the status of marine health.

“A lot of what happens in the Chukchi Sea is like an early detection system for things to happen on a larger scale in the Arctic, with effects even on the global oceans,” Iken said.

Muller-Karger added: “Everybody talks about climate change and we measure temperature or pH, and we talk about these individual measurements as if they were the change, but the real challenge is to measure how life is changing. If not for life, who would care?”

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