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Developing a model based understanding of ecosystem service regulation

Fishing boats. Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Completed project

Project start: May 2017  |  Project end: April 2019
Funder: NERC
Principal Investigator: Dr Jorn Bruggeman
Other participants from PML: Dr Gennadi Lessin, Dr Yuri Artioli, Sevrine Sailley

The world's oceans and seas are home to highly diverse ecosystems and are characterised by the richness and abundance of species. Marine ecosystems provide a range of important services to mankind including food production, climate regulation through the cycling of carbon and other macronutrients, and a range of cultural values (e.g. recreation, tourism). They are in serious decline, primarily as a result of over-harvesting, pollution, and the direct and indirect impacts of climate change. In many locations, pressure from human activity and climatic changes have been associated with dramatic shifts in species composition, known as phase or regime shifts, which are often long lasting and difficult to reverse.

Our understanding of the ecosystems of the UK's coastal and shelf seas is limited and many processes are poorly understood. For example changes in the physical and chemical environment (temperature, circulation, light availability, nutrients) mainly affect algal growth and thus impact the foodweb through bottom up control, whilst impacts such as harvesting act on fish which modify the biomass of lower trophic levels thus altering the controls from predation. However the relative roles of these processes and hence the extent to which environmental change cascades through marine food webs and affects ecosystem services requires elucidation.

This is the second phase of a project working to further develop the existing ERSEM-NEMO modelling framework to better represent biodiversity-relevant processes, flows and feedbacks over a range of spatio-temporal scales, and to be able to model changes in function and the consequences of such changes in the context of ecosystem services. Furthermore these modelling tools need to be suitable for testing the impact of potential management solutions, such as marine conservation zones, on the structure and function of marine food webs across scales, and to explore the efficacy of specific indicators of good environmental status.

A big challenge in modelling marine ecosystems is to capture the hierarchical nature of biodiversity and hence to explore a range of scales. This requires a scalable model system, with a traceable hierarchy whereby more complex foodweb structures can be systematically and coherently related to simple foodweb structures. The project will provide new modelling tools which provide estimates of crucial information to help resolve key scientific questions as well as provide a better understanding of the marine ecosystems as they respond to global change and direct anthropogenic pressures. The combination of predictive tools and new knowledge will underpin the development and implementation of marine policy and the implementation of marine forecast systems.