Empowering geneticists in marine spatial protection with geospatial tools

| By Francine Kershaw and Grace Goldberg (originally published November 17th, 2016, on OpenChannels)

Genetic data is often overlooked and geneticists are rarely at the top of the marine planning party guest list. This results in a significant gap in the protection of evolutionary processes, that are essential for the long-term survival species in the face of environmental change. Genetic tools provide unique information useful for marine protection in a way that complements other approaches, such as satellite tracks and habitat mapping.

So why isn’t genetics being systematically used in marine spatial protection? Research suggests that genetic data is considered valuable by planners and policy-makers, but that it is also generally dispersed, inaccessible, or misunderstood.

Fortunately, this is a problem that we can solve.

The Geospatial Genetics project - a collaboration between NRDC, WCS, UCSB, and the IUCN Joint SSC/WCPA Marine Mammal Protected Area Task Force - is empowering geneticists with the tools they need to more actively engage in marine protection. The project helps geneticists to mobilize their data by transforming it into geospatial maps and then visualizing it in SeaSketch. Maps are deeply intuitive and can easily be explained in the planning and policy arena.

In addition to providing a space for the genetics community to view and contribute geospatial information, a rich set of collaboration tools specifically support iterative planning discussions, in-person and remotely. Participants have access to discussion forums, that facilitate map-based conversations. The SeaSketch survey tool has also allowed project partners to solicit specific feedback from the community, including the submission of spatial plan ideas “sketched out” on the map.

SeaSketch accessible GIS interface (EEZ layer shown), with map-based discussion forums and surveys to support collaborative process.

SeaSketch accessible GIS interface (EEZ layer shown), with map-based discussion forums and surveys to support collaborative process.

The project is currently helping geneticists engage with the Task Force’s initiative to identify Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs), a knowledge tool to guide conservation and management efforts. Guidance on how to identify IMMAs was released in October and a chapter on genetics was included, helping to mainstream genetics into the policy conversation.

The Task Force has also just completed its first expert regional workshop to identify 41 candidate IMMAs in the Mediterranean. There are five other workshops planned in major ocean regions over the next five years.

Four examples of geospatial genetic data layers and graphical analytics from case studies developed in SeaSketch: Genetic connectivity (a) and genetic diversity (c) of  humpback whales  off Africa; and pairwise (b) and interpolated (d) population differentiation of  spinner dolphins in Hawaii . Adapted from  IUCN-MMPATF  (2016).

Four examples of geospatial genetic data layers and graphical analytics from case studies developed in SeaSketch: Genetic connectivity (a) and genetic diversity (c) of humpback whales off Africa; and pairwise (b) and interpolated (d) population differentiation of spinner dolphins in Hawaii. Adapted from IUCN-MMPATF (2016).

Looking forward, the Geospatial Genetics project is actively seeking support to continue to enable geneticists to actively engage with the IMMA identification process by providing the support they need to mobilize their data and participate in the upcoming regional workshops. More broadly, the project aims to continue to build the international community of geospatial geneticists interested in becoming more actively engaged in the policy arena.

It’s time for geneticists to brush off their party wear.

To learn more about SeaSketch supporting collaborative research, contact Grace Goldberg (grace.goldberg@ucsb.edu).

New Science: Noise Seriously Impacts Marine Invertebrates

| Originally published July 29th, 2016

Understanding how ocean noise pollution impacts marine life, and to what extent, are high priorities for scientists. To date, ocean noise research and related policy developments have been largely focused on marine mammals. However, new science presented at the 4th International Conference on The Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life held in Dublin, Ireland, earlier this month, indicated that noise may also seriously threaten the ocean’s most diverse and abundant organisms: marine invertebrates.

Marine invertebrates (animals without a backbone) like mussels and clams, squid and cuttlefish, crabs and shrimp, make up over 75% of described marine species. They are a key component of all marine ecosystems, playing critical roles in essential ecological processes and forming the basis of marine food webs that support other marine life. Many commercially important fisheries increasingly rely on marine invertebrates – there were 1.5 times as many countries fishing for twice as many invertebrate taxa in 2004 compared to 1950.

From a scientist’s perspective, marine invertebrates are a very useful group of species to study to better understand the effects of ocean noise. Marine invertebrates can be easily kept in tanks and subjected to controlled and replicated experiments. By using controlled experiments, scientists can more confidently identify the specific impacts of noise on a particular species. The impacts revealed by the scientists presenting in Dublin were nothing short of striking.

Noise damages protein structure in the common cuttlefish which may compromise their survival. Konyali43 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Noise damages protein structure in the common cuttlefish which may compromise their survival. Konyali43 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Noise damages DNA and proteins. Researchers carefully carried out laboratory experiments that exposed blue mussels – a species harvested for food throughout the world – to playbacks of ship noise for up to 6 hours. They observed a significantly higher level of single-strand breaks in the DNA in the cells of mussels exposed to ship noise compared to those kept under ambient noise conditions. The degradation of the mussel’s DNA is thought to be related to an increase in chemicals produced by the mussel as a result of the stressful noise conditions.

A different research group reported damage to the structure of 37 proteins in one of the sensory receptors (called a ‘statocyst’) of the Mediterranean common cuttlefish after exposure to low-intensity, low-frequency sound. The observed changes are known to affect the physiology and the function of the receptor and therefore the sensory information received by the cuttlefish, which may compromise their survival and role in oceanic ecosystems.

Perception of noise as a predator. A number of scientists reported that marine invertebrates respond to noise in a similar way to predators. For long-fin squid, these behaviors ranged from inking (used to misdirect predators) and jetting (fleeing), to body pattern changes (intended to startle predators). Predator evasion behaviors are stress responses that can use up a lot of the animals’ energy and affect their health in the long-term.  The common cockle – a small bi-valve mollusk that buries itself in the seabed to feed – responded to sound by retracting its feeding tubes and burying deeper into the sand. When the cockles do this they stop feeding, which may put their survival and ability to reproduce at risk.

There were also some fascinating anecdotal observations. A crowd favorite described how a hermit crab, after being subjected to sediment vibration similar to what would be experienced from pile driving (hammering large cement pillars into the seabed), would leave its shell and thoroughly inspect it before climbing back in, as if trying to determine the source of the disturbance. While this provided amusement in the lab, out in the ocean the hermit crab would be more vulnerable to predation without its protective shell.

Hermit crabs were observed to leave their shells after exposure to sediment vibration. Linda Tanner (CC-BY-2.0)

Hermit crabs were observed to leave their shells after exposure to sediment vibration. Linda Tanner (CC-BY-2.0)

While there is still a great deal to learn about the impacts of ocean noise on marine invertebrates, science clearly shows direct linkages between exposure to noise and changes in the physiology and behavior of a wide variety of species, which could possibly threaten their long-term survival. As such, marine invertebrates need to be afforded more consideration by both researchers and ocean noise policy-makers. In the United States, the recently-released NOAA Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap is a promising tool that could be implemented to broaden NOAA’s practices to better address impacts to invertebrates, as well as fish and sea turtles that are also little studied.

It is high tide for marine invertebrates to take the stage.

To learn more about ocean noise and what you can do to help, visit the Sonic Sea website.

Source: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/francine-kers...

Beluga Blues: The Next Phase of Ocean Noise Research

Originally published May 12th, 2016

Noise is increasingly recognized as one of the most pervasive and significant impacts to our oceans. New noises from shipping, seismic surveying for oil and gas, sonar, and a range of construction activities, are drowning out background sounds and, in some cases, causing physical harm to whales and other marine life that rely almost entirely on sound to survive.

The more scientists learn about the effects of ocean noise on marine mammals, the more we realize that the impacts may be more serious than we thought. Increased stress due to noise exposure can reduce the health of exposed whales—just the same way that we are more likely to get sick when we are stressed out. This may reduce breeding success and also impair their ability to cope with many other modern-day stressors.

These new findings raise many questions about how exactly noise impacts individual marine mammals, and what affect those impacts have on the long-term survival of populations and species. This is a complex problem and marine mammal scientists are starting to work together to try and figure it out. Last month, a group of marine mammal experts (myself included) convened for three days in a windowless room in Seattle to do just that. Our subject? The highly endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale.

Beluga whales are highly sensitive to the impacts of noise, which can disrupt vital feeding, breeding and social behaviors.   Ansgar Walk|Creative Commons

Beluga whales are highly sensitive to the impacts of noise, which can disrupt vital feeding, breeding and social behaviors. Ansgar Walk|Creative Commons

The population of beluga whales that lives only in Cook Inlet, Alaska, has declined precipitously in the last 30 years, from approximately 1,300 whales in 1979 to 367 in 1999. The population has not rebounded despite increased protections and only about 340 individuals survive today. The National Marine Fisheries Service recently listed Cook Inlet beluga whale as one of eight species and populations most at risk of extinction in the near future.

It is likely that a multitude of noise-related stressors are contributing towards the Cook Inlet beluga’s lack of recovery. Cook Inlet is one of the most populated and highly industrialized regions in Alaska. Belugas face a huge number of noise-related stressors, including from the oil and gas industry, port construction, shipping, coastal development, military activities, and fisheries. These activities potentially disrupt all aspects of their feeding, breeding, and social behaviors. A recent assessment concluded that beluga communication and hearing is negatively impacted in most locations of Cook Inlet most of the time.

So where did we—a mixed bag of sound experts, beluga biologists, physiologists, and geospatial analysts (aka me)—begin once we were all together? We focused on estimating how noise exposure would reduce feeding opportunities for a female beluga whale by drowning out the echolocation sounds they use to feed. We then estimated how that reduced feeding opportunity might reduce her success in raising a calf that year. Our advice will be used to build a model to predict how noise may affect population growth and decline in the future.

Over the next few months I will be supporting this work by creating a monthly map of Cook Inlet beluga whale distribution (check back for updates!). These maps will be used to better understand where and when Cook Inlet belugas are likely to overlap with noise, helping us to determine the number of beluga whales affected and also the levels of stress a single individual may experience throughout the year. Managers can then use this information to make sure noise levels are reduced in particularly important habitats.

Noise has finally been recognized as one of the most harmful impacts to marine life, but the hard work of understanding the true extent of its effects, and how we can manage them, has just begun.

Source: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/francine-kers...