On the ecological relevance of landscape mapping and its application in the spatial planning of very large marine protected areas
In recent years very large marine protected areas (VLMPAs) have become the dominant form of spatial protection in the marine environment. Whilst seen as a holistic and geopolitically achievable approach to conservation, there is currently a mismatch between the size of VLMPAs, and the data available to underpin their establishment and inform on their management. Habitat mapping has increasingly been adopted as a means of addressing paucity in biological data, through use of environmental proxies to estimate species and community distribution. Small-scale studies have demonstrated environmental-biological links in marine systems. Such links, however, are rarely demonstrated across larger spatial scales in the benthic environment. As such, the utility of habitat mapping as an effective approach to the ecosystem-based management of VLMPAs remains, thus far, largely undetermined.
The aim of this study was to assess the ecological relevance of broadscale landscape mapping. Specifically we test the relationship between broad-scale marine landscapes and the structure of their benthic faunal communities. We focussed our work at the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, site of one of the largest MPAs in the world. We demonstrate a statistically significant relationship between environmentally derived landscape mapping clusters, and the composition of presence-only species data from the region. To demonstrate this relationship required specific re-sampling of historical species occurrence data to balance biological rarity, biological cosmopolitism, range-restricted sampling and fine-scale heterogeneity between sampling stations. The relationship reveals a distinct biological signature in the faunal composition of individual landscapes, attributing ecological relevance to South Georgia's environmentally derived marine landscape map. We argue therefore, that landscape mapping represents an effective framework for ensuring representative protection of habitats in management plans. Such scientific underpinning of marine spatial planning is critical in balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders whilst maximising conservation payoff.