Research

The research of  Dr Kerry Howell and her team focusses on deep-sea ecology, deep-sea conservation and management, spatial planning, high seas / deep-sea marine protected areas, habitat classification, habitat mapping, predictive species modelling, deep-sea food webs, and the ecosystem impacts of deep-water fisheries.

Deep Links Project

Deep Links is a NERC-funded collaborative project between Plymouth University’s Deep Sea CRU and the University of Oxford, in partnership with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and the British Geological Survey (BGS). During this project, we will investigate how patterns of population connectivity vary with depth in the deep-sea, and how this influences species diversity.

In the marine environment, many species do not move as adults (e.g. corals) or move very slowly (sea urchins). This means that for different adult populations to remain connected they rely on the dispersal of early life history stages. Most marine species have a larval stage that lives in the water column for a period of time, moving with the currents, before settling in a new area. It is larval dispersal that keeps distant populations connected. In the deep-sea (>200m), the bathyal region of the continental slope has been identified as supporting high numbers of species and being an area where the rate of origination of new species may also be high. The reasons for this are not clear, but given the importance of connectivity to population isolation and speciation, it follows that the key to understanding patterns of species diversity in this region lies in understanding connectivity.

Further details about the Deep Links project are available on the Deep Links website

Mapping the deep project

DeepSeaCRU are leading the way in the field of deep-sea habitat mapping through the Mapping the Deep Project. This project will provide marine environmental managers with accurate maps on which to make decisions about where we allow human activities such as fishing and mining to go on, and placement of Marine Protected Areas. These maps will also allow us to learn more about what habitats are in our deep-sea, which ones are rare, and which are most vulnerable to human activities.
The mapping the deep project uses state of the art equipment such as multibeam and Remotely Operated Vehicles, combined with modelling techniques to look at the different habitats in the deep-sea and the environmental conditions they are found under. For example, if we can show that cold water coral reefs are most likely to grow at certain depths, on rocky, sloped terrain, we can use this knowledge to predict where else might expect to find them. This is the basis if predictive habitat mapping.

The Mapping the Deep project has already produced coarse scale predictive maps of the distribution of three highly vulnerable deep-sea habitats which can now be used to help target future survey and conservation work. Nils Piechaud is now working on fine-scale predictive mapping of Rockall Bank

Further details about the Mapping the Deep project are available in our project film.

Toward sustainable management of the deep sea: investigating population connectivity

Conservation of sensitive deep sea habitats like cold water coral reefs within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is an important part of current global marine environmental management strategy. However, in the case of non-mobile species like coral, the mobile larval phase must be able to move between protected sites in order to sustain the populations. Thus, the success of MPAs depends on having a clear understanding of population connectivity. In 2012 Dr Kerry Howell was awarded funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for a PhD studentship entitled “Investigating the role of offshore banks and seamounts as stepping stones for dispersal”.  The project combined the biological modelling of the ‘mapping the deep’ project with physical oceanographic modelling in order to assess the dispersal ability and connectivity of deep-sea animal populations. Rebecca Ross completed her PhD earlier this year and is now publishing her chapters.

Deep sea habitat classification

The European Habitat Classification system (EUNIS) currently lists 7 deep-sea biotopes. This makes it of limited use to those engaged in deep-sea biotope mapping since there are clearly more than 7 different types of recognisable deep-sea benthic assemblages. DeepSeaCRU have been working with UK Government to define new deep-sea biotopes for incorporation into the EUNIS classification system. Dr Howell and her team have also been working with international partners involved in the MESH Atlantic programme and the CoralFish programme, to define new European level deep-sea biotopes. An international workshop hosted by Dr Howell at Plymouth University resulted in the draft descriptions of over 100 new deep-sea biotopes. This new draft biotope catalogue will hopefully provide a ‘common language’ of units for European deep-sea biotope mapping, and the basis of a future development of the deep-sea section of the EUNIS habitat classification scheme.
DeepSeaCRU have previously worked on broadscale mapping of the deep-sea for conservation planning.
DeepFish project: Sustainable management of deep-water fisheries and their impact on marine biodiversity
This project was focused on using mass balanced trophic models (EcoPath with EcoSim) to model the deep-water fisheries of the UK continental slope (Rockall Trough region). These are some of the oldest deep-water fisheries in the world that are occurring in one of the most studied deep-sea areas in the world. The model developed was used to investigate the effects of the implementation of current and possible future fisheries management measures on the deep-sea ecosystem. The project finished in Oct 2010 with the publication of two reports (DEEPFISH parts I and II) and one academic publication.  The project was undertaken in collaboration with the Scottish Association for Marine Science and Fisheries Research Services, Aberdeen. DeepSeaCRU retains a strong interest in this research area and is currently seeking funding to continue this work.