Executive Summary

The purpose of the workshop was to explore questions of species diversity and community structure in open ocean pelagic environments with respect to potential global climate changes and their consequent effects. There were several reasons to consider GLOBEC questions in the open sea. If the apparent stability of oceanic communities is due to internal biological checks and balances, then this system might be more resistant to climate change than other more variable environments. However, if the stability of the ecosystem is due to the constancy of the physical environment, then blue water communities might be less resistant to perturbation than coastal systems. Disturbances of the population biology or community structure in the major ocean gyres by global climate change could constitute (or lead to) large scale changes in the biosphere.

In either case, we need to understand organismal and population responses to physical and biological forces, and re-examine them over the time scales of global climate change. At present very little is known about the life histories or population ecologies of zooplankton and fishes in the largest environment on Earth, and it is probably inaccurate to extrapolate from coastal to blue-water species.

A group of 22 participants from the U.S., Canada and France met for three days to discuss this topic and recommend research plans consistent with U.S. GLOBEC objectives. The first day was devoted to informal presentations on subjects ranging from plankton community structure to immunological methods for measuring growth rates. A goal of this discussion was to introduce new biochemical, molecular and genetic techniques that might be applicable to measurement of population dynamics and life history parameters of open ocean species that have previously been studied by more classical approaches. Following these talks, working groups were formed to discuss four topics:

Group A considered some of the physical and biological factors that maintain species diversity and community structure in oceanic environments, and whether these forces led to comparable communities in the central Atlantic and Pacific. They discussed the genetic composition of oceanic species, raising questions about gene flow and homogeneity, and the existence of phenotypic sub-populations adapted to more local ecological conditions. The group recommended time-series studies of physical and biological changes at fixed sites, focusing on a small number of target species. They cautioned that the taxonomic and genetic identity of the target species must be unequivocal, and that new methods might be needed to ensure that this is the case. They also stressed the importance of understanding behavior of the organisms.

Group B discussed questions of species distributions and sampling strategies. They began with consideration of how "open ocean" should be defined, and went on to compare the relative effects of changes in climate and circulation on communities in the centers of gyres versus the ocean margins. It was suggested that understanding the structure of open ocean plankton communities should begin with assessment of biomass distribution, then functional groups and finally species. This group also outlined criteria for targeting species to study in different oceanic regions over decadal time periods to seek evidence of climate change effects on population biology.

Group C was concerned with the biological processes that control population dynamics. They discussed possible differences in vital rates of oceanic versus neritic species, and the mechanisms by which climatic changes might act on those rates. There were questions raised about whether studies should focus on "typical" gyre environments, more productive margins, or other "hot spots". Problems of measuring biological rates of species dispersed in time and space were considered. This group recommended initial analyses of existing data on vital rates of oceanic versus nearshore species and efforts to develop new methods for measuring rate processes and sampling micro-scale distributions.

Group D debated the relative importance of physical versus biological forces in affecting population dynamics and community structure. They considered temperature and wind stress as two primary physical forces which might alter population biology via their effects on warming, stratification, advection, turbulence and circulation. Spatial and temporal distribution patterns brought about by these forces might be expected to constrain feeding, reproduction and dispersal of species. Principal biological factors acting on population dynamics were assumed to be food supply and predation, although the roles of disease and parasitism are not well understood. Understanding behavior of organisms relative to physical and biological forces was considered prerequisite to a study of possible climate change effects. This group recommended a re-sampling of the North Pacific gyre to compare community structure two decades later, and new, long time-series studies at other accessible oceanic sites.

The Workshop recommended a staged implementation of any Open Ocean GLOBEC program, going from retrospective and pilot studies to larger scale field programs. Central to the plan is selection of a small number of target species that have stable circumglobal distributions in several oceanic gyres and are tractable for process and population studies. Selecting species for open ocean studies that have (1) life histories that are known, (2) low genetic diversity, and (3) minimal physiological (non-genetic) variation, will maximize the opportunity for detecting environmental impacts of climate change in the different ocean regions. Target species would become the focus of population dynamics research conducted as time-series and transects in several parts of the world ocean. These efforts would be allied with other large programs that could provide data on global climate conditions.

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