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Conserving pelagic habitats in changing environments: marine top predators as bioindicators

Final Report Summary - CONPELHAB (Conserving pelagic habitats in changing environments: marine top predators as bioindicators)

Although climate change and its effects on several ecosystems are ongoing and accelerating, changes remain non-uniform in space and season and are poorly understood at regional scales. There is also evidence of climate-mediated biogeographical shifts among some groups of marine organisms, but the overall response of pelagic communities, which is likely to depend on the form and strength of the linkages between successive trophic levels, is not known. For that, we need a better understanding of the links between trophic levels in marine systems and how these links can be affected by climate change. Within this framework, the CONserving PELagic HABitats (CONPELHAB, PCIG09-GA-2011-293774) project aims to track the effects of climate change in the pelagic community from temperate to polar environments. We are focusing on the pelagic realm by studying distribution patterns and abundances of biological indicator species of top predators.

The present project, built upon an European collaborative network between the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (Spain), Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France), Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ (Germany) and University of Aberdeen (UK), makes use of a multidisciplinary approach based on existing (and ongoing) long-term data series (20 years for certain species) and the expertise provided by the team of experienced researchers involved that integrates recent techniques of GIS-based habitat modelling with spatially explicit dispersal models.

We have developed distribution models for selected top predators in the NE Atlantic and are mapping the areas where these species could be more at risk from anthropogenic pressures such as fishing, marine litter and climate change, using kernel overlap analysis and taking advantage of the data provided by long term observer programmes on-board oceanographic surveys. Multispecies distribution models were also constructed to identify “hotspots” for top predators and to investigate which environmental variables which characterize these hotspots. In addition, in the case of the critically endangered Balearic shearwater (Puffinus mauretanicus), we have also used state-of-the-art tracking devices to study the migratory routes and the location of the main concentration areas which have helped to identify potential key marine areas for this species outside the breeding season. By investigating the influence of oceanography and prey on the distribution of individual species of top predators, and by developing habitat suitability models to define their pelagic habitat, we are providing the data needed to inform the management and conservation measures required by European legislation such as the Habitats and the MSFD directives.