It might not seem intuitive, but plankton taxonomy is critically important to informing marine policy and conservation. At its most basic level, biodiversity is an inventory of the organisms present in an ecosystem. The recognition and identification of these organisms depends on highly specialised taxonomic skills – many organisms look incredibly similar and can’t be separated just using a field guide. The newest generation of policy mechanisms rightly consider biodiversity in their legislation, and those who help deliver policy – managers, applied scientists (like me!), civil servants – need to consider biodiversity during policy implementation. Plankton biodiversity indicators, based on taxonomic information, are therefore needed to understand and assess subtle changes in marine food webs and dynamics, and provide robust evidence to inform marine conservation and policy. Plankton taxonomic data is consequently increasingly important due to the growing focus on ecosystem-based management of marine environments, a management paradigm intent on conserving biodiversity, key species, and habitats.
The role of biodiversity in conservation and policy is still evolving. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was introduced in 1992, giving a political impetus to marine taxonomy on a global scale. The CBD defines ‘biodiversity’ as:
‘‘the variability among living organisms, from all sources, including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems’’.
This CBD’s definition of biodiversity specifically recognises the species-level component which can only be understood through taxonomy.
More recently, the European Union’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) requires the maintenance of biodiversity to be assessed through by monitoring ecological indicators. The OSPAR Pelagic Habitats Expert Group, which I chair, have developed a suite of complimentary plankton indicators which provide insight into different aspects of the plankton community (Figure 1). These indicators range from bulk indicators of phytoplankton biomass and total copepod abundance, to a plankton lifeform indicator based on functional groups, to an indictor based on biodiversity indices. When used together, these indicators will give insight into plankton biodiversity through examining aspects of plankton productivity (coarse biomass and abundance indicators), function (functional group indicators), and community structure (community composition indicators). Each indicator depends on accurate taxonomic information about the abundance and functional roles of all plankton taxa present.
Worryingly, despite its relevance to ecosystem-based management, taxonomy is a discipline in crisis. Taxonomy is highly specialised, with a long-term training process. Few positions allowing taxonomists to develop their unique skills exist because retiring taxonomists are not being replaced. Additionally, funding for taxonomy has been drastically reduced jeopardising important monitoring datasets. Unfairly, taxonomy is often considered ‘unsexy’ or basic ‘stamp collecting’, rather than innovative science. Taxonomy is actually a wide field, not only restrained to the discovery and description of new species, but also including the identification, analysis, classification and reclassification, and naming of organisms, all of which rely on specialist knowledge. This decline in taxonomic expertise is particularly concerning because the requirement for taxonomic information is increasing due to rising impetus placed on biodiversity conservation and ecosystem-based management.
So how can we help make sure that plankton taxonomic data and expertise are available for policy and conservation? Well, dedicated funding to maintain plankton taxonomic datasets and develop related skills is crucial. A mandate from research councils to include access costs for taxonomic datasets in research proposals, in line with the inclusion of computer, ship, and lab resources, would provide funding stability. The active promotion of scientific value of plankton taxonomic data and research, perhaps through journal-led mandatory citing of datasets, or the publication of taxonomic data, would raise the profile of taxonomy and associated skills by giving data equal merit and recognition to that of journal articles. Finally, and this is my pet area of interest, the better incorporation of plankton taxonomic research into management and conservation would provide a more robust scientific underpinning of decisions making while also illustrating the value of public funding of plankton taxonomic datasets.
From microscope to management, plankton taxonomy is critically valuable to biodiversity conservation and marine policy.
What are your ideas for addressing the vulnerable state of plankton taxonomic data?
Read more: McQuatters-Gollop, A., Johns, David G., Bresnan, E., Skinner, J., Rombouts, I., Stern, R.F., Aubert, A., Johansen, M., and Knights, A., (2017). From microscope to management: the critical value of plankton taxonomy to marine policy and biodiversity conservation. Marine Policy, 83: 1-10. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X16307874
Abigail, Plankton and Policy