Why do we need a global plankton diversity monitoring programme?

When most people think of biodiversity they think of iconic habitats like rainforests and coral reefs. Much of the ocean’s biodiversity, however, is too small to see without a microscope. Plankton are one of the most diverse groups of organisms on the planet. Critically, they underpin the marine foodweb and produce 50% of global oxygen – one out of every two breaths we take is produced by marine plankton. Plankton also respond quickly to environmental change and they aren’t widely fished. These features make plankton ideal indicators for ecosystem assessments to inform decision-making. To use plankton to inform decisions, however, extensive data are required. The Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) survey is unique amongst marine biological datasets in that the North Atlantic survey spans nearly 90 years, with the CPR network now including surveys in the Southern Ocean, Australia, the North Pacific, and New Zealand. Although not quite global in scale (yet!), the CPR survey is world’s longest and most spatially-extensive marine ecological dataset.

Upper panel shows the CPR transect locations together with the year of inception of that local survey. Lower panel shows the combined total number of CPR samples that have had plankton counts determined (from Batten et al. 2019).

The CPR’s sampling and analysis methodologies have changed very little in the past 8 decades which is one of the reasons for its success. Long time-series datasets, particularly those that sample at the spatial scale of the CPR, are incredibly rare in the marine environment but are critical to enabling us to detect responses to human pressures, including climate change. Though the CPR itself hasn’t changed, the applications of the survey’s data have multiplied from investigating local and regional scale change in plankton as food for fish to examining climate-driven changes at a basin scale (for examples see Table 1 in Batten et al. 2019 – or my CV which is filled with publications using this unique dataset!). CPR data can also be used in synergy with other datasets, such as satellite data, and CPRs themselves can be instrumented with sensors to simultaneously collect oceanographic data while still collecting plankton samples. These coincident datasets strengthen our ability to understand change in plankton and the foodweb at multiple scales.

CPRs ready for deployment

The CPR survey has co-evolved with policy drivers, and data from the CPR survey have been particularly successful at informing policy, in the UK, EU, and internationally. CPR data and science have contributed to ecosystem state assessments in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia. At the European level, two indicators for the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive were developed based on CPR data. The extensive spatial scale, multi-decadal time-series, and taxonomic richness of the CPR survey have placed CPR science at the forefront of evidence provision for high-level policy and management advice. Data and research from the survey have informed high profile and strategic global marine assessments such as the IPCC status reports and the United Nations World Ocean Assessment. These international assessments are key to raising the profile of marine ecosystem change and are widely read by those on both sides of the science-policy interface.

Further opportunities exist for CPR data to contribute to global policy mechanisms such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) post-2020 global biodiversity framework, and the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity Beyond Boundaries of National Jurisdiction (BBNJ). For SDG14: Life Below Water, CPR data can provide scientific evidence useful in development of global indicators to report the achievement for the Goal 14.1 on pollution, 14.2 on ecosystem-based approaches, 14.3 on ocean acidification, and 14.5 on marine protected areas. Such indicators could be developed and assessed at the regional or basin scale and reported through national mechanisms, enabling direct comparability between seas and national waters and allowing examination of change in a global context. Plankton information including the CPR data are currently not used in the global indicator suites of the current CBD framework or Aichi Targets despite the fact that the CPR’s scientific quality and data coverage could actually exceed the requirement of these indicators (Chiba et al., 2018). It is clear there is still work we can do, and additional applications of the CPR to policy.

SDG14 – all about the ocean

I am proud to have worked at the CPR survey for 8 years, and although I’m now at the University of Plymouth, I’m definitely a friend of the CPR and work closely with the team. This is an important and unique dataset that is unparalleled in enabling us to understand ocean change. The data and science arising are therefore critical to informing the robust evidence base we need to make good decisions about how we manage the marine environment. As we approach the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) the importance of expanding the CPR’s global monitoring programme is greater than ever.

Abigail, Plankton and Policy


Read more:

Batten, S.D., Abu-Alhaija, R., Chiba, S., Edwards, M., Graham, G., Jyothibabu, R., Kitchener, J.A., Koubbi, P., McQuatters-Gollop, A., Muxagata, E., Ostle, C., Richardson, A.J., Robinson, K.V., Takahashi, K.T., Verheye, H.M. and Wilson, W., (2019). A Global Plankton Diversity Monitoring Program. Frontiers in Marine Science: doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2019.00321

About Abigail McQuatters-Gollop

Marine biologist, guitarist, cat lover, red wine drinker. I like plankton.
This entry was posted in Marine Conservation, Plankton, Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

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