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Long-term oceanographic and ecological research in the western English Channel

Advances in Marine Biology (2005)
Southward A J, Langmead O, Hardman-Mountford N J, Aiken J, Boalch G T, Dando P R, Genner M J, Joint I, Kendall M A, Halliday N C, Harris R P, Leaper R, Mieszkowska N, Pingree R D, Richardson A J, Sims D K, Smith T, Walne A W and Hawkins S J (eds)
Doi: 10.1016/S0065-2881(04)47001-1
Vol 47; pp. 1-105

Long-term research in the western English Channel, undertaken by the marine laboratories in Plymouth, is described and details of survey methods, sites, and time series given in this chapter. Major findings are summarized and their limitations outlined. Current research, with recent reestablishment and expansion of many sampling programmes, is presented, and possible future approaches are indicated. These unique long-term data sets provide an environmental baseline for predicting complex ecological responses to local, regional, and global environmental change.

Between 1888 and the present, investigations have been carried out into the physical, chemical, and biological components (ranging from plankton and fish to benthic and intertidal assemblages) of the western English Channel ecosystem. The Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom has performed the main body of these observations. More recent contributions come from the Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey, now the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, dating from 1957; the Institute for Marine Environmental Research, from 1974 to 1987; and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, which was formed by amalgamation of the Institute for Marine Environmental Research and part of the Marine Biological Association, from 1988. Together, these contributions constitute a unique data series—one of the longest and most comprehensive samplings of environmental and marine biological variables in the world. Since the termination of many of these time series in 1987–1988 during a reorganisation of UK marine research, there has been a resurgence of interest in long-term environmental change. Many programmes have been restarted and expanded with support from several agencies.

The observations span significant periods of warming (1921–1961; 1985–present) and cooling (1962–1980). During these periods of change, the abundance of key species underwent dramatic shifts. The first period of warming saw changes in zooplankton, pelagic fish, and larval fish, including the collapse of an important herring fishery. During later periods of change, shifts in species abundances have been reflected in other assemblages, such as the intertidal zone and the benthic fauna.

Many of these changes appear to be related to climate, manifested as temperature changes, acting directly or indirectly. The hypothesis that climate is a forcing factor is widely supported today and has been reinforced by recent studies that show responses of marine organisms to climatic attributes such as the strength of the North Atlantic Oscillation.

The long-term data also yield important insights into the effects of anthropogenic disturbances such as fisheries exploitation and pollution. Comparison of demersal fish hauls over time highlights fisheries effects not only on commercially important species but also on the entire demersal community. The effects of acute (“Torrey Canyon” oil spill) and chronic (tributyltin [TBT] antifoulants) pollution are clearly seen in the intertidal records.

Significant advances in diverse scientific disciplines have been generated from research undertaken alongside the long-term data series. Many concepts in marine biological textbooks have originated in part from this work (e.g. the seasonal cycle of plankton, the cycling of nutrients, the pelagic food web trophic interactions, and the influence of hydrography on pelagic communities). Associated projects currently range from studies of marine viruses and bacterial ecology to zooplankton feeding dynamics and validation of ocean colour satellite sensors.

Recent advances in technology mean these long-term programmes are more valuable than ever before. New technology collects data on finer temporal and spatial scales and can be used to capture processes that operate on multiple scales and help determine their influence in the marine environment. The MBA has been in the forefront of environmental modelling of shelf seas since the early 1970s. Future directions being pursued include the continued development of coupled physical-ecosystem models using western English Channel time-series data. These models will include both the recent high-resolution data and the long-term time-series information to predict effects of future climate change scenarios. It would be beneficial to provide more spatial and high-resolution temporal context to these data, which are fundamental for capturing processes that operate at multiple scales and understanding how they operate within the marine environment. This is being achieved through employment of technologies such as satellite-derived information and advanced telemetry instruments that provide real-time in situ profile data from the water column.

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