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Marine ecosystems

Benthic Habitat Mapping

Understanding the diversity, extent and condition of the marine ecological environment is imperative to facilitate sustainable management of living marine resources. The emergent discipline of benthic habitat mapping explores synergies between biology, ecology, geology, oceanography and increasingly other branches of the sciences. In doing so, it helps to broaden the focus from single species and population towards the analysis of communities, ecosystems and functional ecology.

The evolution of this discipline is occurring in concert with rapid developments in technology. Recent advances in hardware and software have led to increasing resolution and processing power in hardware and the simultaneous evolution of software to exploit this increasing capacity. All the while, exploration is moving further offshore into progressively deeper, more inaccessible waters and ultimately, less well studied and understood environments. In order to underpin effective management strategies, our understanding of the processes affecting these environments needs to be underpinned with robust science. This will enable more effective prediction of the impact of human activities on these processes and ultimately could help to protect these environments from unnecessary degradation.

Our research in this area is currently focused on sub-tidal rocky reefs in the Gulf of Maine, where we are examining spatial and temporal variability in benthic community structure to try and learn fundamental lessons about the factors controlling the distribution of organisms. Understanding what is important in these communities may help us to develop explanatory models that can be applied and tested elsewhere. We are also exploring the detection of biological resources in the water column with multibeam echosounders, through the development of an analytical framework for mid-water mapping in collaboration with the Irish Marine Institute.

Habitat Suitability Modelling

The modelling of habitat suitability and species distribution is rapidly gaining momentum in marine ecology, with a variety of techniques and approaches emerging in recent years. Understanding more about species potential ranges and critical habitats allows for more effective partitioning of resources and effective management, or more selective targeting for extraction.

Construction of these models is based on establishing links between field observations and a range of environmental parameters which describe something of the habitat preferences that the species of interest occupy. Their increasing application in the marine environment is linked to the availability of high resolution morphological data through the use of multibeam echosounders, and can be seen in its application to a wide range of marine species.

Our research seeks to explore a range of different approaches to habitat suitability and species distribution modelling in a variety of different marine applications, including mobile and sessile species using archival data supported field-based observations.

Marine Fisheries Ecology

Commercial fishing is a vital industry and major employer in many parts of Ireland. Recent changes in the way this industry is regulated during the last number of decades have had major socio-economic impacts in many coastal communities. Reductions in quotas based on European stock assessment data, changes in the way the fleet are managed all have profound implications in terms of how access to the resource is regulated.

Recent reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy will serve to protect endangered stocks and the ending of discards. As this legislative landscape changes these measures need to be quantified and recorded, to help develop a baseline against which to determine future change in terms of landings, effort and to determine the changing public perception of these issues.

Our research seeks to explore the nature and effects of these changes in the context of regional fisheries in the North of Ireland, based on commercial landings, stock assessments and direct consultation with fishers. Furthermore, we additionally seek to assess community and public perceptions of these changes from a socio-economic perspective.