Essential ocean variables and high value biodiversity areas: Targets for the conservation of marine megafauna

García-Barón, I., Santos, M.B., Saavedra, C., Astarloa, A., Valeiras, J., Barcelona, S.G. and Louzao, M., 2020. Essential ocean variables and high value biodiversity areas: Targets for the conservation of marine megafauna. Ecological Indicators, 117, p.106504.

Effective conservation and management measures are needed to face the unprecedented changes that marine ecosystems, and particularly marine megafauna, are suffering. These measures require the identification of high-value biodiversity areas (HVBAs) which in turn require the identification of the essential ocean variables (EOVs) that shape the environmental envelope of communities (i.e. space defined by a set of environmental variables). The aim of this study was to delineate and characterise the HVBAs for the north and northwestern Spanish seabird and cetacean community taking advantage of the sightings collected during the annual PELACUS oceanographic survey (2007–2016). We used distance sampling methodology to analyse the species detectability based on environmental conditions. Then, we delimitated the HVBAs and identified the EOVs defining the environmental envelope of the community based on a spatio-temporal modelling approach using Generalized Additive Models. Overall, the main environmental variables driving species abundance were the sea surface temperature (SST), the distance to the shelf-break and the chlorophyll-a concentration (Chl-a). The SST and Chl-a were identified as dynamic EOVs due to their highest relative predictor importance, driving the environmental envelope and shaping areas of higher density. HVBAs were located mainly over the northwestern Spanish waters and decreased towards the inner Bay of Biscay remaining spatially stable over the study period. By identifying community-level HVBAs, we can understand the underlying ecological and oceanographic processes driving the spatio-temporal patterns of biological communities, such as those composed by seabirds and cetaceans. This information would identify conservation targets to assist the allocation of management resources. In addition, the location of HVBAs can help to fulfil the emergent need for sound spatial information to support the implementation of marine spatial planning.

Food-web interactions in a coastal ecosystem influenced by upwelling and terrestrial runoff off North-West Spain

Paradell, O.G., López, B.D., Methion, S. and Rogan, E., 2020. Food-web interactions in a coastal ecosystem influenced by upwelling and terrestrial runoff off North-West Spain. Marine Environmental Research, p.104933.

Ecopath with Ecosim has been used to create mass-balance models of different type of ecosystems around the world to explore and analyse their functioning and structure. This modelling framework has become a key tool in the ecosystem approach to fisheries management, by providing a more comprehensive and holistic understanding of the interactions between the different species. Additionally, Ecopath with Ecosim has provided a useful framework to study ecosystem maturity, changes in the ecosystem functioning over time and the impact of fisheries and aquaculture on the ecosystem, among other aspects. The present work explores the ecosystem functioning and structure in an anthropogenically impacted coastal area, influenced by seasonal coastal upwelling and high input of nutrients from rias (ancient drowned tectonic valleys) off North-West Spain. A mass-balance model with 23 functional groups was created using Ecopath to study the trophic interactions in the ecosystem during the post-upwelling period (August to October) in 2017. The model described an immature, wasp-waist ecosystem, that shared characteristics of ecosystems found in upwelling areas and ecosystems found in fjords or coastal embayments. Deeper analyses highlighted the importance of small planktivorous pelagic fish as a keystone functional group, and of zooplankton, blue whiting (Micromesistius poutassou) and phytoplankton as structuring groups in the ecosystem. Additionally, the study revealed that the existing fishing pressure on species of intermediate-high trophic levels could alter ecosystem functioning and structure, and ultimately affect top predators in the area. Findings of this study provide baseline information in ecosystem functioning and structure in the area and highlight the need to deeper study the effects of fisheries and their potential impacts on top predators.

Marine megafauna niche coexistence and hotspot areas in a temperate ecosystem

Louzao, M., Valeiras, J., García-Barcelona, S., González-Quirós, R., Nogueira, E., Iglesias, M., Bode, A., Vázquez, J.A., Murcia, J.L., Saavedra, C. and Pierce, G.J., 2019. Marine megafauna niche coexistence and hotspot areas in a temperate ecosystem. Continental Shelf Research, 186, pp.77-87. 

In the last few decades, there has been a remarkable development of niche models to help understand the ecological response of species to current rapid environmental changes. In the present study, we applied niche modelling to the megafauna community of shelf waters of the northwestern (NW) and northern Iberian Peninsula in order to analyse the coexistence of different species taking into consideration their niche preferences. The Spanish Institute of Oceanography conducts the PELACUS multidisciplinary survey annually to assess pelagic fish stocks and collect information on the status of other ecosystem components, such as oceanographic conditions, phytoplankton, zooplankton and marine megafauna. Using data collected from these surveys, we developed niche models for 14 marine megafauna taxa (3 cetaceans, 10 seabirds and 1 fish) incorporating multi-trophic ecological descriptors collected simultaneously during the surveys alongside the more commonly used oceanographic variables (e.g. chlorophyll a and sea surface temperature). Megafauna niche models were developed by pooling observations from 2007 to 2013 and were found to be driven by mean fish biomass and its variability, in addition to sea surface temperature. Hierarchical clustering identified four distinct megafauna assemblages, the first comprising wide-ranging species and the other three associated with shelf-slope waters in Galicia, coastal/shelf waters in Galicia, and the eastern Cantabrian Sea, respectively. Community-level hotspot areas were found in shelf and shelf-break sectors of Galicia, along with small diversity spots scattered throughout the Cantabrian coastal area. Our results showed that synoptically collected survey-based ecological descriptors, especially acoustic-based preyscapes, were among the most important variables explaining megafauna niche preference. These findings highlight the advantage of using integrated ecosystem surveys to collect simultaneous information on a suite of ecosystem components for spatial assessments.


Population Trend of the World’s Monitored Seabirds, 1950-2010

Paleczny, M., Hammill, E., Karpouzi, V. & Pauly, D., 2015. Population trend of the world’s monitored seabirds, 1950-2010. PloS one, 10(6), p.e0129342.

Seabird population changes are good indicators of long-term and large-scale change in marine ecosystems, and important because of their many impacts on marine ecosystems.We assessed the population trend of the world’s monitored seabirds (1950–2010) by compiling a global database of seabird population size records and applying multivariate autoregressive state-space (MARSS) modeling to estimate the overall population trend of the portion of the population with sufficient data (i.e., at least five records). This monitored population represented approximately 19% of the global seabird population. We found the monitored portion of the global seabird population to have declined overall by 69.7% between 1950 and 2010. This declining trend may reflect the global seabird population trend, given the large and apparently representative sample. Furthermore, the largest declines were observed in families containing wide-ranging pelagic species, suggesting that pan-global populations may be more at risk than shorter-ranging coastal populations.

Seabird conservation status, threats and priority actions: a global assessment

Croxall, J.P., Butchart, S.H., Lascelles, B.E.N., Stattersfield, A.J., Sullivan, B.E.N., Symes, A. & Taylor, P.H.I.L., 2012. Seabird conservation status, threats and priority actions: a global assessment. Bird Conservation International, 22(01), pp.1-34.

We review the conservation status of, and threats to, all 346 species of seabirds, based on BirdLife International’s data and assessments for the 2010 IUCN Red List. We show that overall, seabirds are more threatened than other comparable groups of birds and that their status has deteriorated faster over recent decades. The principal current threats at sea are posed by commercial fisheries (through competition and mortality on fishing gear) and pollution, whereas on land, alien invasive predators, habitat degradation and human disturbance are the main threats. Direct exploitation remains a problem for some species both at sea and ashore. The priority actions needed involve: a) formal and effective site protection, especially for Important Bird Area (IBA) breeding sites and for marine IBA feeding and aggregation sites, as part of national, regional and global networks of Marine Protected Areas; b) removal of invasive, especially predatory, alien species (a list of priority sites is provided), as part of habitat and species recovery initiatives; and c) reduction of bycatch to negligible levels, as part of comprehensive implementation of ecosystem approaches to fisheries. The main knowledge gaps and research priorities relate to the three topics above but new work is needed on impacts of aquaculture, energy generation operations and climate change (especially effects on the distribution of prey species and rise in sea level). We summarise the relevant national and international jurisdictional responsibilities, especially in relation to endemic and globally threatened species.

Disturbance to a foraging seabird by sea-based tourism: Implications for reserve management in marine protected areas

Velando, A. & Munilla, I. Disturbance to a foraging seabird by sea-based tourism: Implications for reserve management in marine protected areas. Biological Conservation 144, 1167–1174 (2011).

The provision of recreational opportunities is one of the important human goals of marine protected areas. However, as levels of recreational use increase, human disturbance is likely to cause significant detrimental effects upon wildlife. Here we evaluate the best managing options to mitigate the impact of sea-based tourism on the foraging activity of an endangered population of European shags, Phalacrocorax aristotelis, in a coastal marine protected area (Cíes islands, north-western Iberia). Boat disturbance elicited a characteristic avoidance behavior that resulted in a substantial reduction in foraging activity as levels of boat use increased. Moreover, boats excluded shags from the best feeding areas, resulting in higher densities of foragers in areas of little boat traffic. We used a behavioral model to explore the effects of managing strategies aimed at reducing the impact of boats on the foraging activity of shags. Our model suggested that in low boat disturbance scenarios limiting the number of boats using the reserve would be a better management option than habitat protection (i.e. the establishment of set-aside areas free of boat traffic). On the contrary, when boat disturbance levels are high the protection of habitat is recommendable, even if spatial variation in habitat quality is unknown or poorly assessed. Our study stresses the point that management strategies to minimize disturbance to foraging seabirds may depend on the spatial overlap between sea-based recreational activities and foraging seabirds and the spatial variation in marine habitat quality for seabirds.

Are edge bird populations doomed to extinction? A retrospective analysis of the common guillemot collapse in Iberia

Munilla, I., Díez, C. & Velando, A. Are edge bird populations doomed to extinction? A retrospective analysis of the common guillemot collapse in Iberia. Biological Conservation 137, 359–371 (2007).

In the first half of the XXth century, the common guillemot (Uria aalge) was the seabird with the largest breeding population in Atlantic Iberia (ca. 20,000 individuals), the low-latitude limit of the species breeding range. However, this population suffered a dramatic decline and is quasi-extinct at present. The decline was believed to be associated with reduced availability of pelagic prey fish due to climate change. In this study, we analyzed the population change of Iberian guillemots in the second half of the XXth century by means of a retrospective analysis. Our study showed that between 1960 and 1974 the guillemots in Iberia suffered a dramatic population crash (33.3% annual decline) and that subsequently, the population continued to decline at a slower annual rate (13.4%). Simulation models indicated that the factors driving the population crash should be related to adult survival, rather than reproduction. The analysis of environmental and fishery data suggested good climate conditions and higher or sustained availability of pelagic prey fish when the Iberian guillemots crashed. In contrast, relevant human-related factors were affecting adult mortality in that period, specially a rapid and large increase in the number of synthetic fishing nets. During the collapse, no conservation measures were undertaken to mitigate anthropogenic threats and it was assumed, in some extent, that this low-latitude edge population was somehow prone to extinction as a consequence of climate change. This study high- lights that to carelessly attribute the decline of rear edge populations to climate change could be highly misleading if the population is suffering from other, particularly human, threats.