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South Pacific Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems Project

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This project aimed to produce predictive models for Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs) in the South Pacific, and evaluate the model's effectiveness for potential management and conservation scenarios to protect VMEs.

More information about the project and survey is below.

Funded by Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment
Funding Years: 2012-2015

Research organisations involved in the project

National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research (New Zealand), Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand), Marine Conservation Institute (USA)

Research question

What are the vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) adjacent to New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and can habitat prediction models be used effectively to determine their characteristics and spatial extent?

Marinedata crop

Fishing in the area adjacent to New Zealand's EEZ in the South Pacific is managed by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO). The SPRFMO convention area (above figure) comprises the waters of the Pacific Ocean beyond areas of national jurisdiction from 10° N to 60° S, and 120° E to about 67° W as shown (see https://www.sprfmo.int/ for precise definition).

 

Project background and summary

Vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) are those ecosystems highly vulnerable to one or more kinds of human activity such as fishing. VMEs are identified by the vulnerability of their species, communities, and or habitats to disturbance.

There are concerns that VMEs are threatened by fishing in areas of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction (‘high seas’). The United Nations, international conservation organisations, and fisheries management agencies all wish to implement management strategies to project VMEs, and thereby preserve ecosystem function in the deep oceans.

Without such protection the calls for fishing to cease on the high seas will increase. New Zealand fishing fleets operate in the high seas region of the South Pacific, and New Zealand is currently leading initiatives to improve fisheries management in the region.

There is little information about the distribution or characteristics of VMEs in the South Pacific, which is hampering the design of management measures. Recent studies have demonstrated that habitat suitability models can predict the occurrence of seabed animals that indicate the presence of VMEs.

Various international bodies have called for the development of such models and their use in designing effective management of fishing on the high seas. This project aimed to produce predictive models for VMEs in the South Pacific, and evaluate their effectiveness for potential management and conservation scenarios to protect VMEs.

Fig4 OCM SPRFMO model
Predictive relative habitat suitability index (HSI, 0-1) for the SPRFMO convention area and the New Zealand EEZ from the habitat suitability models for the four reef-forming scleractinian coral species.

 

The project collated all available biological and environmental data for building habitat suitability models at two large spatial scales. The largest South Pacific-scale model was ground-truthed by a survey from RV Tangaroa, and the New Zealand-regional model subsequently refined. Using information from seafloor images collected on the ground-truth survey, a small-scale model using abundance data was used to predict the occurrence and characteristics of VMEs on seamounts of the Louisville Seamount Chain.

Fig7 Anderson DSR NZ model

Predictive relative habitat suitability index (0-100%) for the New Zealand region from the habitat suitability models for the scleractinian coral Solenosmilia variabilis.

VME AB Forde CMB highres crop

Predictive occurrence of coral reef habitat (VME) based on an abundance threshold from the habitat suitability models for the scleractinian coral Solenosmilia variabilis.

 

Archived data and new analyses were also used to reveal the genetic connectivity of populations for a range of VME indicator animals in the New Zealand region. The regional-scale habitat suitability models were used, together with other relevant data, to demonstrate the utility of the decision-support tools for designing spatial management measures that protect high priority conservation areas for VMEs, while still allowing for fishing in areas valuable to the fishing industry.

 

Project data and research products