The Marine Biodiversity Observation Network Project

by Kathleen OKeife

The vision of this project is that the National Marine Sanctuaries should serve as sentinel sites for monitoring marine biodiversity of the nation’s coastal and shelf waters. With our partners, we are establishing a pilot Marine Biodiversity Observation Network (MBON) that supports the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the complex partnership of Federal and State agencies, including NOAA, the Department of the Interior, and State and Tribal entities that exercise overlapping jurisdictions in the National Marine Sanctuary system. The project engages several NOAA line offices, elements of the Integrated Ocean Observing System, and other government, academic, and private partners that can spin off the MBON strategies developed here to other sanctuaries, marine protected areas or other coastal, estuarine, and watershed management jurisdictions.

Among the most pressing issues identified as a threat common to all US. National Marine Sanctuaries is the loss of biodiversity and the unknown potential impacts of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystem services. The challenge is to devise an MBON that effectively tracks the status and trends in biodiversity.

FWRI is engaged in several activities in support of this project, with our focus specifically on the FL Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). First, staff at the Center for Spatial Analysis in St. Petersburg support this project by providing a significant amount of the biological data available for the FKNMS; most of which resides on our GIS servers. Additionally, we have created a viewer to help stakeholders visualize these data.

Secondly, using the Ecopath with Ecosim and Ecospace (EwE) mass-balance model, we are evaluating indices of the biomass, structure, connectivity, and distribution of trophic groups throughout available habitat. EwE is the most widely used ecosystem model in the world and is traditionally used in fisheries management applications. However, researchers are increasingly interested in applying EwE in an ecosystem monitoring and management context. The vast amount of monitoring data in the Florida Keys makes the FKNMS the ideal case study location to evaluate EwE as an ecosystem monitoring tool, in addition to exploring fishing policy options.

We worked with the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center to segregate the Reef Visual Census (RVC) data into 37 ecologically relevant trophic groups for data ranging from 1994 to 2012. We estimated diet composition, biomass, fishing mortality, and other parameter estimates for each trophic group using FWC data and related Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico based ecosystem models. We are now in the position to examine how changes in functional connectivity and proposed changes in Marine Protected Areas designs (associated with the FKNMS rezoning effort) affect exploited trophic groups. This figure illustrates the relationship between functional habitat connectivity and changes in abundance and biomass using a graph theoretic approach.

Finally, while we know that primary producers are diverse and dynamic in space and time, links to biodiversity across trophic levels are likely to be complex and are often poorly understood. We are working with a number of partners to collect environmental DNA, or eDNA, samples for targeted molecular biology studies. By concentrating the material in 1-liter of seawater, we are able to examine the biodiversity across different trophic levels by targeting different genes and using high-throughput sequencing technology. Recent investigations in marine habitats have successfully shown the application of eDNA and targeted sequencing to detect a variety of vertebrate and invertebrate taxa, as well as bacteria, archaea, phytoplankton, and fungi. This effort is being conducted by our Ecosystem and Restoration scientists, in collaboration with USF and other MBON team members as part of the FKNMS study.

With our partners, we are endeavoring to build an MBON application that links existing programs in each region, that is scalable and transferable, and that can therefore be used to understand basic ecosystem services, sensitivity to impacts, and that supports management decisions by these agencies.