The importance of long-term environmental monitoring and research for detecting and understanding changes in ecosystems and human impacts on natural systems is widely acknowledged. Over the last decades, a number of critical components for successful long-term monitoring have been identified. One basic component is quality assurance/quality control protocols to ensure consistency and comparability of data. In Norway, the authorities require environmental monitoring of the impacts of the offshore petroleum industry on the Norwegian continental shelf, and in 1996, a large-scale regional environmental monitoring program was established. As a case study, we used a sub-set of data from this monitoring to explore concepts regarding best practices for long-term environmental monitoring. Specifically, we examined data from physical and chemical sediment samples and benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages from 11 stations from six sampling occasions during the period 1996–2011. Despite the established quality assessment and quality control protocols for this monitoring program, we identified several data challenges, such as missing values and outliers, discrepancies in variable and station names, changes in procedures without calibration, and different taxonomic resolution. Furthermore, we show that the use of different laboratories over time makes it difficult to draw conclusions with regard to some of the observed changes. We offer recommendations to facilitate comparison of data over time. We also present a new procedure to handle different taxonomic resolution, so valuable historical data is not discarded. These topics have a broader relevance and application than for our case study.
Estimates of fish biomass collated at the community level are reliable indicators of fish and ecosystem health. Data to calculate fish biomass is routinely collected using either underwater visual census (UVC) or stereo diver operated video (DOV), although the compatibility of UVC and DOV based estimates are yet to be assessed. Accordingly, we calculated and compared community level measures of coral reef fish biomass at Ningaloo reef (Western Australia) using both UVC and DOV. The UVC based biomass estimates were 788 kg/Ha, which was ∼50% greater than those from DOV (500 kg/Ha). Differences between the methods were primarily due to DOV measuring the length of only ∼40% of fish detected by video, preventing fish specific weight calculations for all fish encountered. When the size of unmeasured fish was assumed to be the median value of fish measured by DOV, revised DOV+ estimates of community biomass (778 kg/Ha) were similar to those from UVC. However, even when unmeasured fish were included in DOV calculations, biomass of some families (serranids) were still higher when using UVC. Conversely, DOV adjusted estimates of pomacentrid biomass were higher than those from UVC, due to DOV measuring fewer small bodied fish (<3 cm), thus having a larger median size for the high number of unmeasured pomacentrids compared to UVC. Our results suggest that community measures of fish biomass from DOV and UVC are broadly comparable once weights of unmeasured fish are incorporated into DOV estimates. This may increase the spatial and temporal scales at which fish biomass can be monitored, although compatibility of data will depend on the composition and size distribution of the fish assemblages.
Electronic tags are significantly improving our understanding of aquatic animal behavior and are emerging as key sources of information for conservation and management practices. Future aquatic integrative biology and ecology studies will increasingly rely on data from electronic tagging. Continued advances in tracking hardware and software are needed to provide the knowledge required by managers and policymakers to address the challenges posed by the world's changing aquatic ecosystems. We foresee multiplatform tracking systems for simultaneously monitoring the position, activity, and physiology of animals and the environment through which they are moving. Improved data collection will be accompanied by greater data accessibility and analytical tools for processing data, enabled by new infrastructure and cyberinfrastructure. To operationalize advances and facilitate integration into policy, there must be parallel developments in the accessibility of education and training, as well as solutions to key governance and legal issues.
Species surrogates, the use of particular species to index habitat condition or to represent ecological assemblages are commonly identified in many ecosystems, but are less tested, and therefore less employed in estuaries. Estuaries provide important ecosystem goods (e.g. harvestable species) and services (e.g. carbon processing, coastal armouring), but require protection from multiple human activities, meaning that finding surrogates for estuarine condition or faunal assemblages is a significant knowledge gap. In this study, we test the efficacy of the threatened estuary ray Hemitrygon fluviorum, as a suitable indicator of ecosystem condition and management umbrella surrogate species for conservation prioritisation and monitoring purposes within estuaries. We surveyed fish assemblages and ray presence at ten sites within each of 22 estuaries in southeast Queensland, Australia, using one hour deployments of baited video arrays. We then tested for correlations between ray presence, a series of environmental variables considered important to ecosystem management within estuaries (i.e. testing rays as indicator species), and the co-occurring fish species (i.e. testing rays as umbrella species). Estuary rays function as both umbrella species and ecological indicators of habitat status in subtropical Australian estuaries. As umbrellas, ray occurrence concords with elevated species richness. As ecological indicators, ray distribution concords with habitats of good water quality (especially low turbidity) and more natural vegetation remaining in the catchment. These results highlight the potential for other threatened aquatic vertebrates that are both readily detectable and that are reliable proxies for ecosystems status to be become useful management tools in estuaries. The protection of such large, threatened species in coastal seascapes allows managers to address multiple targets for conservation, especially; (1) protecting species of conservation concern; (2) maintaining diversity; and (3) protecting optimal habitats by better placing reserves.
Human-driven global change is causing ongoing declines in biodiversity worldwide. In order to address these declines, decision-makers need accurate assessments of the status of and pressures on biodiversity. However, these are heavily constrained by incomplete and uneven spatial, temporal and taxonomic coverage. For instance, data from regions such as Europe and North America are currently used overwhelmingly for large-scale biodiversity assessments due to lesser availability of suitable data from other, more biodiversity-rich, regions. These data-poor regions are often those experiencing the strongest threats to biodiversity, however. There is therefore an urgent need to fill the existing gaps in global biodiversity monitoring. Here, we review current knowledge on best practice in capacity building for biodiversity monitoring and provide an overview of existing means to improve biodiversity data collection considering the different types of biodiversity monitoring data. Our review comprises insights from work in Africa, South America, Polar Regions and Europe; in government-funded, volunteer and citizen-based monitoring in terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems. The key steps to effectively building capacity in biodiversity monitoring are: identifying monitoring questions and aims; identifying the key components, functions, and processes to monitor; identifying the most suitable monitoring methods for these elements, carrying out monitoring activities; managing the resultant data; and interpreting monitoring data. Additionally, biodiversity monitoring should use multiple approaches including extensive and intensive monitoring through volunteers and professional scientists but also harnessing new technologies. Finally, we call on the scientific community to share biodiversity monitoring data, knowledge and tools to ensure the accessibility, interoperability, and reporting of biodiversity data at a global scale.
- Many species and populations of marine megafauna are undergoing substantial declines, while many are also very poorly understood. Even basic information on species presence is unknown for tens of thousands of kilometres of coastline, particularly in the developing world, which is a major hurdle to their conservation.
- Rapid ecological assessment is a valuable tool used to identify and prioritize areas for conservation; however, this approach has never been clearly applied to marine cetaceans. Here a rapid assessment protocol is outlined that will generate broad-scale, quantitative, baseline data on cetacean communities and potential threats, that can be conducted rapidly and cost-effectively across whole countries, or regions.
- The rapid assessment was conducted in Tanzania, East Africa, and integrated collection of data on cetaceans from visual, acoustic, and interview surveys with existing information from multiple sources, to provide low resolution data on cetacean community relative abundance, diversity, and threats. Four principal threats were evaluated and compared spatially using a qualitative scale: cetacean mortality in fishing gear (particularly gillnets); cetacean hunting, consumption or use by humans; shipping related collision risk and noise disturbance; and dynamite fishing.
- Ninety-one groups of 11 species of marine mammal were detected during field surveys. Potentially the most important area for cetaceans was the Pemba Channel, a deep, high-current waterway between Pemba Island and mainland Africa, where by far the highest relative cetacean diversity and high relative abundance were recorded, but which is also subject to threats from fishing.
- A rapid assessment approach can be applied in data deficient areas to quickly provide information on cetaceans that can be used by governments and managers for marine spatial planning, management of developments, and to target research activities into the most important locations.
Baited remote underwater stereo-video systems (stereo-BRUVs) are commonly used to sample fish assemblages across areas of differing fish densities with little consideration of how intraspecific and interspecific behaviours may influence estimates of abundance and body-size distribution. To investigate these potential biases, the current study compared the abundances and body-size distributions of seven target carnivorous species and six lower trophic level non-target species, across sites with high and low densities of large-bodied target species, using Stereo-BRUVs. Samples were collected inside and outside of an area closed to fishing at the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, Western Australia. Densities of large-bodied target species were found to be higher inside the closed fishery area, compared to similar areas outside. The presence of large-bodied target species did not appear to influence the body-size distribution of conspecifics, or the abundance and body-size distribution of small-bodied non-target species throughout the deployments. The abundance of large-bodied target species was found to peak earlier in deployments within the closed area than the areas open to fishing. This difference may be due to the higher relative density with the closed area, which may result in shorter arrival times as fish move towards the baited video, and/or to behavioural differences, as fish within the closed area may approach the baited video more readily. This potential behavioural difference between areas closed and open to fishing has important implications for duration of baited video sampling times, and we suggest that shorter deployments times (< 15 min) are less likely to bias abundance estimates of fishery target species.
The Southern Resident killer whale population (Orcinus orca) was listed as endangered in 2005 and shows little sign of recovery. These fish eating whales feed primarily on endangered Chinook salmon. Population growth is constrained by low offspring production for the number of reproductive females in the population. Lack of prey, increased toxins and vessel disturbance have been listed as potential causes of the whale’s decline, but partitioning these pressures has been difficult. We validated and applied temporal measures of progesterone and testosterone metabolites to assess occurrence, stage and health of pregnancy from genotyped killer whale feces collected using detection dogs. Thyroid and glucocorticoid hormone metabolites were measured from these same samples to assess physiological stress. These methods enabled us to assess pregnancy occurrence and failure as well as how pregnancy success was temporally impacted by nutritional and other stressors, between 2008 and 2014. Up to 69% of all detectable pregnancies were unsuccessful; of these, up to 33% failed relatively late in gestation or immediately post-partum, when the cost is especially high. Low availability of Chinook salmon appears to be an important stressor among these fish-eating whales as well as a significant cause of late pregnancy failure, including unobserved perinatal loss. However, release of lipophilic toxicants during fat metabolism in the nutritionally deprived animals may also provide a contributor to these cumulative effects. Results point to the importance of promoting Chinook salmon recovery to enhance population growth of Southern Resident killer whales. The physiological measures used in this study can also be used to monitor the success of actions aimed at promoting adaptive management of this important apex predator to the Pacific Northwest.
The European Union’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) aims to adopt integrated ecosystem management approaches to achieve or maintain “Good Environmental Status” for marine waters, habitats and resources, including mitigation of the negative effects of non-indigenous species (NIS). The Directive further seeks to promote broadly standardized monitoring efforts and assessment of temporal trends in marine ecosystem condition, incorporating metrics describing the distribution and impacts of NIS. Accomplishing these goals will require application of advanced tools for NIS surveillance and risk assessment, particularly given known challenges associated with surveying and monitoring with traditional methods. In the past decade, a host of methods based on nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) analysis have been developed or advanced that promise to dramatically enhance capacity in assessing and managing NIS. However, ensuring that these rapidly evolving approaches remain accessible and responsive to the needs of resource managers remains a challenge. This paper provides recommendations for future development of these genetic tools for assessment and management of NIS in marine systems, within the context of the explicit requirements of the MSFD. Issues considered include technological innovation, methodological standardization, data sharing and collaboration, and the critical importance of shared foundational resources, particularly integrated taxonomic expertise. Though the recommendations offered here are not exhaustive, they provide a basis for future intentional (and international) collaborative development of a genetic toolkit for NIS research, capable of fulfilling the immediate and long term goals of marine ecosystem and resource conservation.
Small cetaceans (dolphins and porpoises) face serious anthropogenic threats in coastal habitats. These include bycatch in fisheries; exposure to noise, plastic and chemical pollution; disturbance from boaters; and climate change. Generating reliable abundance estimates is essential to assess sustainability of bycatch in fishing gear or any other form of anthropogenic removals and to design conservation and recovery plans for endangered species. Cetacean abundance estimates are lacking from many coastal waters of many developing countries. Lack of funding and training opportunities makes it difficult to fill in data gaps. Even if international funding were found for surveys in developing countries, building local capacity would be necessary to sustain efforts over time to detect trends and monitor biodiversity loss. Large-scale, shipboard surveys can cost tens of thousands of US dollars each day. We focus on methods to generate preliminary abundance estimates from low-cost, small-boat surveys that embrace a ‘training-while-doing’ approach to fill in data gaps while simultaneously building regional capacity for data collection. Our toolkit offers practical guidance on simple design and field data collection protocols that work with small boats and small budgets, but expect analysis to involve collaboration with a quantitative ecologist or statistician. Our audience includes independent scientists, government conservation agencies, NGOs and indigenous coastal communities, with a primary focus on fisheries bycatch. We apply our Animal Counting Toolkit to a small-boat survey in Canada’s Pacific coastal waters to illustrate the key steps in collecting line transect survey data used to estimate and monitor marine mammal abundance.