Using Marine Biodiversity to Measure Ecosystem Health

Posted: March 16, 2021
Category: Researchers , Resource Managers

Habitat providers. Animal shelters. Coastline defenders. Nutrient recycling champions.

Corals and the reefs they build provide these life-sustaining services — and the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is tasked with managing them.

To help with managing these important resources, Sanctuary managers rely on ocean observations to inform Condition Reports —  summaries of the state of the reef and of the resources in each Sanctuary. Reports include things like the status and trends of water quality, habitat, and living resources, as well as the human pressures that threaten the integrity of the marine environment. The “State of Sanctuary Resources” section of the report indicates whether conditions are steady, declining or improving.

Historically, there’s been a lack of objective criteria to justify a particular rating or assess a particular management strategy because of the complexity of these reef systems.

Now, thanks to advances in interdisciplinary monitoring capabilities, the national Marine Biodiversity Observation Network (MBON) is being developed to bridge the information gap.

“MBON is improving the ways we track natural and human systems in marine sanctuaries by using new technologies like eDNA, finding new ways to interpret data on noise in the ocean, and creating tools compiling several kinds of large-scale information into what are called seascapes,” said Dr. Steve Gittings, Science Coordinator for NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program. “In combination, they give us much higher confidence in our assessments of sanctuary conditions and trends, and help us identify when management actions are needed.”

Six MBON projects, spanning Maine to Florida and Alaska to California, are in development to enable better understanding of the living marine resources that NOAA manages.

In the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, one of the largest marine protected areas in the U.S. that encompasses nearly 2,900 square miles (9,933 km), the South Florida MBON team is working with GCOOS and SECOORA to better characterize resource status so appropriate management responses to pressures can be made. Led by Dr. Frank Muller-Karger, University of South Florida College of Marine Science, it brings together satellite remote sensing, genetic analysis, fish and plankton surveys, and ambient sound recordings. Combined, these innovative approaches are providing a synoptic view of the sanctuary.

Here’s a snapshot:


Ever since Alexander von Humboldt discovered that different types of plants and animals live in different habitats, we have called the science to discover such patterns “biogeography”. Because of the lack of physical boundaries in the ocean, differentiating dynamic oceanic habitats is a challenge. Defining areas based on physical, chemical, biological, and geological properties helps to define where particular groups of species will occur and enables predictions about different planktonic and fisheries communities. Measurements collected with cameras and sensors on satellites orbiting the earth and computer models are used to produce MBON Seascape products on monthly and 8-day time steps at 5 km resolution.


Environmental DNA is an analysis method that identifies the genetic material found in water samples. Long used in freshwater environments, it is now being applied to marine biodiversity assessments. The MBON team is validating methods and analytical tools, and integrating eDNA with remote sensing data and ecosystem models to answer a variety of questions. Among these are determining spatial and temporal variation across methods, trophic levels and habitats to enable managers to predict trends in local to basin-scale forcing of biodiversity. In addition, the MBON team is working to correlate eDNA data with seascape structures to identify habitats with differing taxa compositions.

MBON eDNA work includes building reference libraries to advance a global eDNA monitoring system.

Collecting environmental DNA helps scientists make new discoveries about ocean ecosystems. Image courtesy of ThayerMahan, Inc., Kraken Robotics, and the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research


Sound in the ocean is intertwined with both the physical and biological aspects of the marine environment. Passive Acoustic Monitoring using underwater hydrophones enables the creation of soundscapes — visualizations of the acoustic environment based on noise from geologic (e.g., earth quakes, volcanoes), biologic (e.g., dolphin clicks, fish grunts) and human activities (e.g., boat engines, coastal dredging). MBON complements efforts like SanctSound, a joint NOAA NMS and U.S. Navy project, by working to determine whether distinct underwater sound signatures from marine animals can be used to monitor biodiversity changes over time. To this end, BioSound is a new MBON effort focused on characterizing ocean soundscapes for measuring biodiversity, human activities, and understanding ecological relationships between changing soundscapes and biodiversity.

For more information about how the integration of data from these technologies is being used to establish a protocol for MBON to dynamically update Sanctuary Condition Reports, contact: Dr. Frank Muller-Karger at for Seascapes; Dr. Anni Djurhuus at for eDNA; and Dr. Neil Hammerschlag at for Biosound.

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