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Challenge

The aim of SEA-UNICORN is to help improve policies for Sustainable Development by fostering interactions among the varied research communities that study Marine Functional Connectivity (MFC), the modellers that predict its ecological and economic consequences and the stakeholders involved in environmental governance and sustainable exploitation for the seas.

Background

Oceans cover 71% of the Earth, host almost every major phyla, and deliver multiple ecosystem services, several of which (e.g. food provision, climate regulation) shape human societies today. Sustainable management of the seas is, therefore, essential. Yet, their protection lags far behind that of continental habitats.

Marine ecosystems are highly vulnerable to anthropogenic pressures, and most experience multiple, concurrent threats (e.g. habitat loss, overfishing, temperature rise, hypoxia). Over the last century, 90% of marine top predators have disappeared and many coastal and oceanic habitats have been lost or severely degraded. As a result, only 13% of the world’s oceans today have relatively intact ecosystems.

 

Unprecedented losses in marine biodiversity are occurring. This compromises ecosystem functions and reduces ecosystem resilience to change. Given the importance of marine wildlife and habitats to society and the linked fate of marine and continental ecosystems, rapid, informed actions are needed to mitigate unwanted consequences of ongoing changes. 

Timeliness

Effective marine conservation is currently impeded by dynamic ecosystem-level changes that are poorly understood. Improving knowledge on connectivity is a crucial first step to understand these changes and develop approaches to promote the resilience of species and habitats to global change. 

Gathering effective knowledge on Marine Functional Connectivity (MFC) can improve predictions of the impacts of environmental change and help refine management and conservation strategies for the Seas. Robust MFC knowledge is needed not only to conserve vulnerable species or ecosystems, control the spread of invasive species, pathogens or aquaculture escapees but also to plan effective networks of protected areas. This knowledge will also help promote sustainable fisheries’ management and enhance the benefits derived from biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Fit-for-purpose MFC science and data are urgently needed to inform marine policies in support of the sustainable development goals for a well-functioning ocean described in the 2030 Agenda of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development

Main aims for MFC research

Gather operational MFC knowledge for protecting marine biodiversity

Produce the MFC descriptors needed for preserving ecosystem functions & services

Identify (past & present) drivers of MFC to improve projections of the impacts of Global Change

Challenge

MFC knowledge is difficult to gather for a number of reasons including:

  • Access to the marine environment is limited and movements at sea occur in 3 dimensions 

  • Pelagic and benthic organisms found at the same location at time can lead very distinct lives

  • Marine populations are large and very few organisms remain sedentary over their entire life span

  • Many organisms can disperse substantial distances at very small body sizes.

​A wide diversity of methods and tools (from various disciplines) have been used to  predict, reconstruct or directly track individual movements within and among populations or habitats. During the last decade, technological developments have generated major advances in MFC knowledge.

 

Information on MFC is now available for a broad range of aquatic organisms (from viruses to whales) and across all marine eco-regions. However, several methodological barriers and knowledge gaps remain and need to be addressed to understand MFC at a global scale.

Barriers to MFC knowledge to overcome

1- Lack of method integration

Each method has strengths and weaknesses that affect the accuracy of its connectivity estimates limiting its potential to inform management.

Unifying concepts among disciplines and integrating methods could lead to major scientific breakthroughs in MFC research and marine policy.

This is challenging because most disciplines differ in their underlying assumptions and/or the geographical or temporal scales at which their methods are applied.

2- Gaps and bias in MFC knowledge

Bias in MFC knowledge exists towards organisms and areas important to society.

Consolidated knowledge for a wide range of marine taxa, regions and habitats is required for defining effective management measures at both local and larger (regional to global) scales.

A balance is needed in gaining in-depth knowledge in some systems and extrapolating it to unstudied systems. New research is needed that produces MFC estimates that can be generalized across a wide range of taxa and eco-regions.

3- Integrating land-sea connectivity

Valuable information on the functioning of our planet can be revealed by understanding how specific species connect diverse habitats.

An example is the transfer of energy and matter between the land and sea via the migrations of marine birds or diadromous fishes.

 

Improving MFC knowledge on these species will help understand the spatial and temporal dynamics of coastal ecosystem services, allowing managers to optimize conservation actions both at sea and on land.