URI oceanographer calls for network to monitor marine biodiversity

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System could warn of threats to ecosystems on which humans depend

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — April 12, 2013 — Humans tend to monitor what they think is important—blood pressure, batting averages, hurricane tracks, Internet bandwidth, voting results, and stock prices, among other phenomena.

But a University of Rhode Island oceanographer and her colleagues say that sometimes we don’t know what’s important until it’s too late, and that ignorance can come back to bite us. Their article in this week’s issue of BioScience calls for the establishment of a national network to monitor the diversity of marine life, a key bellwether of ocean and human health.

“Maintaining biodiversity in marine habitats is like an insurance policy, ensuring that we maintain a strong natural infrastructure to support healthy coastal waters,” said Tatiana Rynearson, associate professor of oceanography at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography.

“We depend on ocean life for food, livelihoods, and half the oxygen we breathe—no matter how far inland we live,” added Professor J. Emmett Duffy of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “We know the ocean is sick and getting sicker but we don’t even have a finger on the pulse, so to speak, so we’re not sure how bad it is or how to cure it. Our article offers a plan for regular check-ups to keep sea life healthy.”

A comprehensive marine biodiversity observation network could be established with modest funding within five years, the scientists say. To be most effective, the network would monitor biodiversity at all biological levels, from microbes to whales. It would also link observations of biodiversity to the physical factors controlling sea life, such as water temperature and water quality, and be flexible enough to detect and track emerging issues as environmental conditions change.

According to Rynearson, the network would have several concrete benefits. “For example, it would improve biosecurity against invasive alien species, including infectious agents and other pests, providing an early warning system,” she said. “A success story for this kind of monitoring comes from the coast of California, where in 2000, divers discovered an invasive tropical seaweed species that caused tremendous damage to tourism and fishing in the Mediterranean. Because it was detected early, the aggressive seaweed was eliminated before it spread. Similar proactive monitoring can facilitate early warning of other invasives, including economically damaging harmful algal blooms.”

The scientists envision a network with sites along both the east and west coasts of the United States, with other nodes focusing on the deep sea and coral reefs. A U.S. network would complement regional efforts already underway in the European Union, New Zealand, and elsewhere, and could incorporate technology and lessons learned from existing ocean observing systems that focus on measurements of physical factors such as water temperature, wave height and salinity.

The technology for a marine biodiversity observation network already exists in the form of high-tech gear such as AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles), ROVs (remotely operated vehicles), ocean drifters, and monitoring buoys. These would complement and extend ship- and shore-based research efforts, both by academic researchers and a cadre of citizen scientists.

“Developing human resources is as important as technical innovation in creating a successful network,” the authors wrote. “To maximize participation and accessibility, [the network] should . . . result in products that are widely usable. Creative use of citizen science could also broaden support, engage the public, and reduce costs.” Collected data—whether from new observations or historical research—would be made readily accessible online, allowing for analysis of current conditions and long-term trends.

“A comprehensive network to monitor marine biodiversity is not pie in the sky—or sea,” said Duffy. “We can start right now by building on existing infrastructure, networks, and technology, and then gradually expand.”

“There are also a lot of synergies between the benefits of the proposed network and the National Endowment for the Oceans, recently proposed by Senator Whitehouse, which would provide funds to keep our nations coastal waters healthy and productive,” concluded Rynearson.