Posted by: The ocean update | September 25, 2010

Marine Conservation Research : from whales to microalgae blooms (Malta)

25 September 2010. The Conservation Biology Research Group (CBRG) at the Department of Biology, University of Malta, has been addressing various gaps of knowledge linked to local wild species assessments. Examples range from bluefin tuna stocks, dolphins, whales, sharks and turtles to crabs, octopi, fish, echinoderms, and jellyfish, among others.

While species are studied in their own habitat and demand hours out at sea or underwater, various other important aspects of their biology are studied in the laboratories. Diverse species, big and small, are encountered during ongoing surveys that span vast areas around the Maltese Islands allowing for comprehensive understanding of biodiversity in our waters. More importantly, the long-term efforts of such studies would allow a better understanding of the changes that our marine life is facing.

The often ignored microscopic marine life such as plankton becomes a dominant observation when for example a microalgae bloom in large concentrations poses threats to marine and human life. However various microalgae in plankton play incredibly important roles in the marine ecosystem too. With dedicated field work and application of recent technologies, including molecular genetics, fast species identification is possible, thus solving enigmas regarding which microscopic species are blooming in our seas.

Ongoing marine surveys have in fact detected blooms of microalgae of the Phaeocystis species, in particular P. globosa mucilaginous colonies, which vary from micrometres to millimetres in size. Though these microalgae produce colonies as a defence mechanism in the presence of grazers (their predators), the formation of blooms are also considered an indication of eutrophication or presence of high concentrations of nitrates and ammonia in the sea.

These algal blooms have undesired impacts on marine organisms and tourism in other parts of the world where such episodes occur on a regular basis. The local bloom of colonial microalgae has been found to spread for kilometres from Maltese coasts and is being monitored as part of ongoing marine conservation research undertaken by conservation biologist Dr Adriana Vella at the University of Malta.

The blooms have various possible impacts on the marine environment and the life in it. According to studies on the French coast of the eastern English Channel, the impacts of P. globosa bloom affected the intertidal seabed communities in terms of composition and/or functioning.

Collaboration with various other scientists is underway to see what may be causing this bloom and what impacts this may have on the Maltese Islands. The CBRG is active in research and training in conservation biology with applications in sustainable fisheries, sustainable tourism, conservation area planning, monitoring and management. Biodiversity assessments for conservation are undertaken at various levels : genes and populations, species and ecosystems.

The CBRG’s genetics work, used to study wild species populations, directly caters for the demanding conservation research which makes use of various sophisticated tools to answer the questions managers, policy makers and governments are faced with to implement sustainable development and conservation of natural resources and wildlife.

University students are gaining expertise which is specially required locally to deal with conservation issues that come up on a daily basis: from fish stocks decreasing to environmental degradation and biodiversity impoverishment; from assessments of areas for nature conservation to assessments of activities of economic importance which may be jeopardising the long-term survival of our natural heritage ; from assessing illegal exploitation of protected and endangered species to enhancing the rehabilitation of degraded natural sites and wild populations.

Local and regional considerations of these countless problems and issues need serious commitment and expertise. The University’s role in training and education in these areas of expertise, research and knowledge provision is essential to the country, therefore financial support to this institution needs to reflect this.

With biodiversity and our marine life’s safeguard in mind, it becomes obvious how conservation field research and conservation genetics are well worth investing in to improve our local environmental assessment methods and management. The CBRG at the University of Malta has invested time and funds to develop the experience required to further develop this necessary expertise and to develop novel ways of addressing research needs for conservation.

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