Biogeosciences Meeting Report

Sustainable Observations of Plankton, the Sea’s Food Foundation

Workshop on Developing an Implementation Plan for a Sustained, Multidisciplinary Global Observing System of Plankton Communities; Santa Cruz, California, 25–27 June 2018

By , Jay Pearlman, and Raphael Kudela

Microscopic plankton make up 98% of the ocean’s primary productivity. They produce 50% of the world’s oxygen and are the foundation of the food webs that support most marine life. Therefore, plankton are not only vital for human food security but also critical for human existence.

Despite their importance, our knowledge of plankton—and, particularly, essential variables such as abundance and diversity—is limited. Consequently, sustained and systematic observations are urgently needed to monitor these communities to inform research on fisheries indicators, water quality, and progress toward United Nations sustainable development goals worldwide.

To address this need, more than 27 international scientists from across ocean disciplines and areas of plankton expertise met last June in California. They focused on two major goals. First, they sought to identify global plankton monitoring challenges. Second, they wanted to formulate recommendations for a multiyear implementation plan for a global, sustainable plankton-observing capability that addresses societal and scientific requirements, observations, data management, and information products.

A satellite view of a North Atlantic phytoplankton bloom
A massive bloom of phytoplankton in the North Atlantic Ocean. At a recent workshop, researchers highlighted how sustainable monitoring of plankton communities is essential to understanding ocean health. Credit: NASA

Attendees identified a few persistent challenges, including the need for clearly defined and standardized best practices for spatial coverage and temporal resolution of plankton observations and observation technologies. They agreed that overcoming these issues will require international agreement, coordination, and funding.

They also discussed key recommendations for a 10-year implementation plan: alignment with the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021–2030) and priority societal requirements, effective communication with stakeholders, capacity development and increased participation of developing countries, creation of relevant products, and long-term sustainability. Participants agreed that integration with current observing programs around the world is crucial to achieving these recommendations.

From a technical perspective, experts agreed that automating measurements will be critical to expanding spatial and temporal coverage. They recommended pilot projects to test the implementation plan at a local to regional scale involving the installation of imaging equipment like the Underwater Vision Profiler (UVP), the Imaging Flow CytoBot (IFCB), or other automated systems on selected Global Ocean Ship-Based Hydrographic Investigations Program (GO-SHIP) lines. They also considered platforms, like Biogeochemical-Argo, and fixed stations, like OceanSites.

Attendees also agreed on some key messages for the success of the plankton-observing implementation plan. They include the following:

  1. Improved communication with all ocean stakeholders, including the public, policy makers, environmental managers, and industry (e.g., tourism/recreation, energy, fisheries, transportation, and pharmaceuticals). Meeting participants felt that stakeholders will support and advocate for plankton global observations if they are aware of the importance and impact of changes in plankton communities for the well-being of human populations and for ocean health.
  2. Lowering the costs of automating technologies, such as imaging and molecular studies (such as genomics), for broader use, as well as use of machine learning processes and improved (real-time) quality control.
  3. Standardizing data outputs and facilitating their inclusion directly in major biodiversity databases like the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) and Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).

Further details of the implementation plan are under development. More information, as well as a list of grants that supported the workshop and workshop sponsors, is available at the Plankton-mob workshop’s website. We thank organizers and chairs Frank Muller-Karger, Francoise Pearlman, Nic Bax, Daniel Dunn, Henry Ruhl, Sonia Batten, Ana Lara-Lopez, Peter Thompson, and Ward Appeltans.

—Patricia Miloslavich (email: [email protected]), Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia; also at Universidad Simón Bolívar, Caracas, Venezuela; Jay Pearlman, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Seattle, Wash.; and Raphael Kudela, University of California, Santa Cruz

Citation: Miloslavich, P., J. Pearlman, and R. Kudela (2018), Sustainable observations of plankton, the sea’s food foundation, Eos, 99, Published on 20 November 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY 3.0
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