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Researchers Develop a Framework for Identifying the Most Vulnerable Marine Species

Global conservation and policy efforts to combat human climate change will be aided by a framework for identifying the most vulnerable marine species.

Researchers Develop a Framework for Identifying the Most Vulnerable Marine Species.
The yellow-wing flying fish (pictured) and other flying fish are increasingly vulnerable to climate change-related stressors. Image Credit: University of Queensland.

The framework was established by the University of Queensland scholars and global marine specialists after evaluating marine biology literature and categorizing a wide variety of dangers faced by more than 45,000 species, including climate change, pollution and fishing.

The analysis found the most endangered species from all threats, according to Dr. Nathalie Butt of UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Molluscs, corals, and echinoderms—hard or spiny creatures such sea urchins—are truly feeling the impacts in our oceans, facing a diverse range of threats. They’re affected by fishing and bycatch, pollution and climate change.

Dr Nathalie Butt, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Queensland

Dr. Butt says, “Flowerpot corals—an incredibly fragile but stunning form of coral found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Persian Sea—is one group of species that is especially affected by climate change-related stressors, such as ocean acidification. We also discovered that starfish, sea snails and flying fish are increasingly vulnerable to climate change-related stressors, all of which can be found in oceans around the world.”

Roughy fishes are quite vulnerable to the effects of pollution, including organic, inorganic, and nutrient pollution, which was quite a surprise, as they live at a range of depths, including deep sea, which demonstrates how far the effects of pollution are spreading,” added Dr. Butt.

The accelerated rate of environmental change, according to Dr. Butt, was a driving force behind the framework’s creation.

Dr. Butt adds, “The environment is changing so quickly because of human actions, and we need to use all information available to help us assess which animals are at risk and why, and to help develop the most appropriate ways to protect and manage them—that’s where this framework comes in.”

This framework is unique as it uses biological characteristics or traits of marine species to assess their vulnerability to specific stressors or threats with the greatest potential impact, such as pollution, fishing, and of course, climate change.

Dr. Nathalie Butt, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Queensland

This information, according to fellow researcher Associate Professor Carissa Klein, would help users to make better decisions about how to spend and prioritize their resources to safeguard the world’s most threatened species.

Dr. Klein remarks, “Conservationists can use the framework to prioritize resources for their protection and determine which management actions would best protect particular species or groups of species and where.”

We assessed all species and all threats that we know about now across the planet. The exciting thing is that we built the framework so that we could accommodate new information, whether that be about new species or information about threatening processes. This means that the work can also be applied in particular places to protect the ocean, using more detailed information about the species, and their threats, in that place.

Carissa Klein, Associate Professor, University of Queensland

The project was conducted in collaboration with the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and featured international taxonomic specialists.

Journal Reference:

Butt, N., et al. (2022) A trait-based framework for assessing the vulnerability of marine species to human impacts. Ecosphere.

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