Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton


The coasts and shelf seas that surround us have been the focal point of human prosperity and well-being throughout history. Their societal importance extends beyond food production, and includes biodiversity, nutrient cycling, recreation and renewable energy. As coastal population densities are rising, these ecological benefits become progressively compromised by human activities; overfishing, pollution, habitat disturbance, climate change. Importantly, sediment communities that harbour high levels of biodiversity are particularly affected, because most species are unable to move to avoid disturbance. This is worrying because seabed condition, biodiversity and human society are inextricably linked. It is important, therefore, to be able to assess and understand how the ecological condition of the seabed relates to the provision of ecosystem benefits so that human pressures can be managed more effectively to ensure the long-term sustainability of our seas.

Scientific research has considered species roles in the environment and the ecological consequences of biodiversity loss. From this body of work it has been possible to construct projections of future environmental condition and associated societal benefits. These models largely assume that the roles of species and how they respond to perturbation are well-defined and characterized. But these assumptions are based on present-day conditions and have seldom been objectively validated or experimentally tested under anticipated future conditions. This is worrying because Government agencies and other bodies tasked with managing the marine environment use these model projections to plan for the future. Hence, there is an urgent need to understand how species respond to and effect ecosystem properties prior to, during and post-disturbance events. The capacity of different species to mediate ecosystem properties will depend on the contributory role of each species, as some species will be insensitive to disturbance, while others will be more vulnerable to change. The balance of these responses will determine the seabed's capacity to provide goods and services, which makes it very difficult to assess species sensitivities or make general statements about what benefits we can expect from our seas in the future.

We will address these shortcomings by bringing together scientists with expertise in ecology, physiology, genetics and numerical modeling to test how key species respond to and affect ecosystem properties under present and future conditions. We will see how different types of disturbance alter species behaviour and, subsequently, affect ecosystem properties (e.g. nutrient cycling). Nutrients are important as they support the growth of phytoplankton and algae, which underpin the ocean's food web. In our experiments, we will record the levels of nutrients released into the water as a result of sediment mixing by worms, clams, urchins and brittlestars. By doing this for a range of environmental conditions (abrupt vs. long-term forcing) we will establish how exposure to different disturbance regimes, and their combinations, affect these important processes. We will determine the physiological performance of each species by measuring the molecular mechanisms that underpin adaptation. This will tell us whether species are able to adapt to new environmental conditions and whether such adaptive adjustments impinge on other important species roles. By matching the nutrient and sediment mixing data with physiological conditions across multiple generations, we will considerably improve understanding of how species may respond to future environments and, in turn, affect major ecosystem properties. We will use this information to co-design and implement, with Cefas, a new model that adequately characterises species contributions under changing conditions, placing the UK in a unique and unparalleled position to deliver accurate forecasts of ecosystem integrity in support of policy.

Planned Impact

BENEFICIARIES: Stakeholder analysis at an early stage of project identified main beneficiaries as central government departments, agencies and advisory bodies focusing on ecosystem integrity (Defra, Natural England, JNCC, MMO), as well as the general public, focusing specifically on those in primary, secondary and higher education.

OUTPUT: Our focus will be to generate outputs that will help define current baseline conditions and anticipate future shifts in ecosystem condition. This will place the UK in a unique position to deliver forecasts of ecosystem integrity that will underpin effective adaptive monitoring and mitigation strategies. We will provide unique empirically grounded insights, backed by empirically derived data that will strengthen NERC's commitment of "placing environmental science at the heart of responsible management of our planet" and which provides a focus on "understand[ing] and predict[ing] how our planet works" (Business of the Environment Strategic Direction). Outputs will include improved understanding of the role that species play in mediating ecosystem properties, how these are modified by different types of perturbation, whether species have the ability to acclimatize or adapt to change, and new modeling capacity offering improved predictions of ecosystem condition. The latter, in particular, will support management decisions and enable planning.

ACTIVITY: We will work with a dedicated Communications officer and the Cefas project partners to plan and implement an effective engagement portfolio. We will take advantage of the well-established Cefas-Defra relationship (Co-Is Bolam and Parker are leads on various Cefas-Defra management groups) to facilitate communication of project outcomes to key policy makers, such as through the Marine Science Co-ordination Committee (MSCC), namely HBDSEG (Healthy, Biologically Diverse Seas Evidence Group). This group meets several times a year to review UK response to EU directives and relevant scientific outputs, which feeds new evidence immediately through to UK delegation discussions. In addition, we will host regular stakeholder workshops to provide a forum for two-way exchanges of information and exploration of any emerging issues. We will maximise the potential for influencing policy by embracing opportunities for policy-related work placements and internships.
We will have a dedicated communications officer who will implement our public outreach programme. This will be centered around reaching educational learners (primary, secondary and higher education). We will use a portfolio of communication techniques including Twitter and a dedicated website, but will focus efforts on linking into existing local and national outreach efforts including the mobile "Brown Planet" exhibition at the Winchester Science Center, which will be linked to the Public Engagement Research Unit at Southampton University, who will tour this display across annual science festivals. We will also offer short workshops on "Shelf Seas" tailored to educational level. For extended national and international outreach we will disseminate research findings in an educational, informative and interactive format through online resources, specifically our Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). We will evaluate the impact of all engagement activities using established monitoring programmes.


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