How are plankton changing?


Plankton play a critical role in the marine ecosystem

1 March 2019 by Carla Yorukoglu

Scientists are one step closer to understanding how plankton communities are changing in coastal waters and shelf seas around the UK.

Using more than 11 years of data, scientists created a snapshot of how plankton are responding to factors such as climate change and found that the patterns of change differ spatially throughout UK waters. As part of the UK plankton monitoring programme, the data was collected by methods ranging from sampling by nets, water bottles, integrating tube samplers and a device known as a Continuous Plankton Recorder.

The study, led by the University of Plymouth and funded by NERC and Defra, will offer a preliminary insight into the overall health of our seas and their ability to support larger marine wildlife.

Lead author Dr Abigail McQuatters-Gollop, Lecturer in Marine Conservation at the University of Plymouth and NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow, said:

For the first time ever, we have a method to investigate how plankton are changing throughout UK waters. Without plankton we won't have oxygen to breathe, fish to eat or larger marine mammals to admire.

The study forms the foundation of the UK's 2020 Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) assessment for open water habitat biodiversity and food webs. In the UK and the Northeast Atlantic region, changes to plankton groups is the formally-accepted policy indicator used to assess Good Environmental Status (GES) for open ocean habitats under the MSFD.

Initially adopted by the European Union in June 2008, the legislation was updated in 2017 to give clearer guidelines as to what countries should do in order to achieve GES for European waters by 2020.

Dr McQuatters-Gollop added:

The value of plankton cannot be overestimated and the scientific community recognise this. Policymakers are also starting to, thanks to legislation such as the MSFD, but it's vital we all appreciate the critical role plankton play in the marine ecosystem and why it's so important to monitor them and understand their dynamics.

The UK's plankton programme monitors European waters and the North Atlantic, but surveys that examine marine biodiversity at a basin scale are rare. We need to make sure that this comprehensive monitoring continues and our next task is to interpret what these changes mean to the wider marine ecosystem. We can then connect those to changes in ecosystem services that plankton provide, like food web alterations, carbon cycling and oxygen production.