Exploring the role of benthos in MPAs

​​A new paper from the Benthos Ecology Working Group summarizes the efforts of 20 benthologists.
Published: 8 July 2020

"Exploring the use of a generic framework to illustrate the importance of benthic marine ecosystems to the effectiveness of MPAs​"  was published in Aquatic Conservation on 7 July 2020. ​​​​Joint lead authors Paolo Magni (CNR‐IAS, Italy) and Clare Greathead (Marine Science Scotland), and co-author Silvana Birchenough (Cefas, UK and Chair of BEWG) tell us why they began to work on marine protected areas.

Interest and concern over the role of benthos in marine protected areas (MPAs) in 2015, prompted the Benthos Ecology Working Group (BEWG) to start working on MPA conservation and effective management. MPAs are protected under law because of their importance to species and habitats. However, our concern as benthologists is that within ICES region, the consideration of vulnerable components and mechanisms underpinning benthic marine ecosystems may not be as accurate under the process of MPA designation, management, and monitoring.

Our study compiled information on MPAs across six European ecoregions, where we assessed relevant benthic ecology criteria to highlight issues regarding the representation and protection of benthic ecosystems in MPAs.

The assessment comprised 102 MPAs, designated by ten countries, and focused on three aspects regarding the role of the benthos in: 1) the designation of the MPA, 2) management measures, and 3) monitoring and assessment. We synthesised this information into a pedigree matrix, with a dedicated numerical scale to a set of qualitative entries collected by our experts in a dedicated questionnaire. 

Our results showed clear differences in scores between ecoregions and between criteria. Over 70% of the MPA case studies were found to consider the benthos to some extent during selection and designation, but there were clear gaps with the appropriate management measures and good practice during the implementation phase.

Some examples of poor designation scores were reiterated later in the MPA process, with low implementation scores caused by poor spatial and temporal coverage of monitoring, using selected indicators. Poor spatial and temporal coverage of monitoring and ineffective indicators is unlikely to pick up any changes caused by management measures in the MPA. However, without adequate monitoring and adaptive management frameworks, there is a concern that MPAs will be compromised. This assessment was successful in highlighting issues related to the representation and protection of the benthos in MPAs and where improvements, such as expanding the characterisation and monitoring of benthic species or habitats of interest, need to be made.

Our paper demonstrates and emphasises that some of these challenges could be attributable to an ongoing process and/or an indication that some MPAs only have a superficial level of "paper protection".

Further research to be done

"Exploring the use of a generic framework to illustrate the importance of benthic marine ecosystems to the effectiveness of MPAs​"  represents the first in a series of contributions, and as an ICES expert group, BEWG is delighted to produce these types of important international assessments.

While an important contribution from a conservation perspective, this paper also holds personal significance to the group. BEWG wishes to recognise one of our colleagues who started it all back in 2014 at our meeting in Dinard: Clare Greathead​ (Marine Scotland Science, UK) with her presentation titled “Distribution and environmental requirements for three sea pen species and the implications for marine protected areas". This presentation inspired us to compile this paper. What a fantastic legacy for benthic ecology and conservation!​

The Benthos Ecology Working Group focuses primarily on long-term series and climate change, benthic indicators and EU directives, and species distribution modelling​​. The group's work on MPAs addresses Conservation and management science - one of ICES science priorities. Discover all seven interrelated science priorities and how our network will address them​ in our Science Plan: “Marine ecosystem and sustainability science for the 2020s and beyond”​.

*Updated 30 July.

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Exploring the role of benthos in MPAs

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