A Community Consensus on Designating Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems from Imagery

Amy Baco-Taylor1, Rebecca Ross2, Franzis Althaus3, Amelia Bridges4, Saskia Brix5, Ana Colaço6, Malcolm R Clark7, Cherisse Du Preez8, Mari-Lise Franken9, Genoveva Gonzalez-Mirelis10, Ellen Kenchington11, Lisa A Levin12, Dhugal Lindsay13, Tina Molodtsova14, Nicole Morgan15, Telmo Morato16, Beatriz Eugenia Mejia-Mercado17, David O'Sullivan18, Karine Olu19, Tabitha Pearman20, David Price20, Katleen Robert21, Ashley Alun Rowden7, James Taylor22, Lisette Victorero23, Les Watling24, Alan Williams3, Chris Yesson25 and the DOSI working group on VMEs from Imagery, (1)Florida State University, Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Tallahassee, United States, (2)Institute of Marine Research, Norway, (3)CSIRO, TAS, Australia, (4)University of Plymouth, Plymouth, United Kingdom, (5)Seckenberg Research Institute, Germany, (6)University of the Azores, Institute of Marine Research, Ponta Delgada, Portugal, (7)National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research, Wellington, New Zealand, (8)Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Deep-Sea Ecology Program, Sidney, BC, Canada, (9)South African National Biodiversity Institute, South Africa, (10)Institute of Marine Research Bergen, Bergen, Norway, (11)Bedforf Institute of Oceanography, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Dartmouth, NS, Canada, (12)Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, United States, (13)Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, Yokohama, Japan, (14)P.P Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, Moscow, Russia, (15)Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, United States, (16)University of Azores, Portugal, (17)Florida State University, Earth, Ocean, Atmospheric Sciences, Tallahassee, FL, United States, (18)Irish Marine Institute, Galway, Ireland, (19)IFREMER, Plouzané, France, (20)National Oceanography Center, Soton, Southampton, United Kingdom, (21)Memorial University of Newfoundland, Fisheries and Marine Institute, St John's, NF, Canada, (22)RIKEN Advanced Institute for Computational Sciences, Kobe, Japan, (23)Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, France, (24)University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, HI, United States, (25)Zoological Society of London, London, United Kingdom
Under UNGA resolution 61/105, management of fisheries in areas beyond national jurisdiction requires identification of vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs). Criteria to designate a VME include uniqueness, functional significance, fragility, structural complexity, and certain life history traits. Currently the only quantitative way to assess VME locations is to use fisheries trawl bycatch data. Besides potentially destroying the VME in gathering these data and method caveats, the threshold for designating a VME from trawls varies among FAO regions. Imagery data from scientific surveys is a less destructive approach, however there currently is not a framework for designating VMEs from images. Thus, the goal of this project was to bring together a large international team to establish first pass consensus guidelines across regions for designating VMEs from images.

An initial assessment showed a lack of consistency between FAO regions regarding what is considered a VME species. Another challenge was determining how many images were needed. In certain cases, from a single image, experts agreed that the site should be designated a VME, most often in areas of scleractinian reefs, dense octocoral beds, multiple VME species present together, and chemosynthetic ecosystems. In cases where VME taxa were present but a VME designation could not be made easily from a single image, other factors were considered, with a specific focus on density. We compiled natural density data for indicator taxa from images from 3 oceans to assess whether there was a similar threshold among scientists. Densities varied considerably by taxon, but were not correlated to depth. The mean density of all megafaunal taxa in an image was ~2.5 individuals per m2, but for most individual taxa, densities higher than 1 individual per m2 were rare. In terms of VME designation, values as low as 0.1 colonies per m2 for octocorals and antipatharians were commonly considered to be a VME, with higher values for sponges. These findings are discussed in light of current fisheries management practices and cobalt-rich Mn crust mining.