A project that documented patterns of biodiversity and related processes in the Gulf of Maine, which will be used in ecosystem-based management of the area.
Peter Lawton, Ph.D., Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Centre for Marine Biodiversity, St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada
The Gulf of Maine Area Census of Marine Life was one of seven initial field projects of the Census of Marine Life. The Gulf of Maine was selected as the ecosystem pilot study for the Census. The goal of this program was to gain enough knowledge to enable ecosystem-based management in a large marine environment. The program advanced knowledge of both biodiversity and ecological processes over a range of habitats and food-web levels, from plankton to whales.
The Gulf of Maine is a dynamic ecosystem. Both natural and human influences have wrought large changes in the abundance and diversity of life in its waters. Such species as mackerel, herring, and lobster have flourished at times, but wild Atlantic salmon are endangered, and traditional livelihoods have been wiped out by the collapse of such bottom-dwelling fish as haddock and cod. We know a lot about some individual species, but we don't know enough about these populations, their habitats, and their interactions with one another and their environment to determine why these changes have taken place or what the future may hold.
This program focused on marine life in the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, the adjacent Slope Sea, and the western New England Seamounts. The team took advantage of and demonstrated the latest technologies to perform an integrated study that was aimed at understanding both the biogeography of the gulf and the processes controlling it. A broad suite of instruments and sensors collected data on the physical and biological characteristics of the Gulf of Maine. Acoustical and optical devices were deployed or operated from surface vessels, towed sleds, and remotely operated and autonomous vehicles. The program worked with existing efforts in this well-studied region, such as Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the US National Marine Fisheries Service. The program's objectives were to:
• synthesize current knowledge of biodiversity, including patterns of distribution, drivers of biodiversity patterns and change, and how biodiversity patterns affect function of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem;
• assess the extent of unknown biodiversity;
• lead and support development of information systems to increase access to data;
• support selected field projects and emerging research technologies;
• work with the scientific community and federal agencies in the USA and Canada to help develop a framework for incorporating biodiversity information into ecosystem-based management;
• make recommendations for future research and monitoring; and,
• educate the public on the role and importance of marine biodiversity.
The Gulf of Maine program extracted knowledge from scientific literature and existing databases to create a searchable Gulf of Maine Register of Marine Species. Researchers also gained knowledge through new field studies aimed at little known components and areas of the Gulf, undersampled species, and little understood ecological processes. They synthesized knowledge into scientific papers and reports. Its offers a section on technologies to guide researchers on the appropriate tools and techniques for assessing biodiversity in the ocean, as well as informative sections aimed at students and educators. New research strategies focused on the most important gaps in knowledge. These include a dearth of information on organisms that inhabit the seafloor and on the role of large vertebrates, including sea birds, mammals, turtles, and tunas, in shaping the flow of energy in the Gulf of Maine. Research better defined what species live where, what their roles are in the Gulf's ecosystem, and the processes that influence their numbers.
As the program team worked with ongoing efforts in the Gulf and synthesized what is known, it identified gaps on which further study could be focused. It performed field studies, as well as recommended a system of ongoing monitoring.
By their nature, not all things about ecosystems or their futures are knowable. Uncertainty is inherent in ecosystems. With increased knowledge, however, we can narrow uncertainty and learn how to adapt to it. The Gulf of Maine Area program developed a framework that can be shared by managers and scientists of how knowledge of regional marine biodiversity could be used in management. The purpose is not to make recommendations on how to manage, but to encourage thinking about how biodiversity information could be used outside its purely scientific realm.
Visit the Gulf of Maine Area Census  website.