Marine Life Counts: The U.S. Marine Biodiversity Observation Network

NOAA Ocean Podcast: Episode 1

The ocean is home to millions of different forms of life—yet we know surprisingly little about the creatures that live right along our shores, how they interact with each other, or how they're changing as the ocean environment they live in changes. Hear how the U.S. Marine Biodiversity Observation Network aims to change that. The goal is to ensure that scientists not only notice changes in biodiversity at locations around the nation, but also have the tools in place to better understand what these changes tell us about ocean health over time.

a school of barricuda. Image courtesy of

Listen to the Episode:


[HOST] You're listening to the NOAA Ocean podcast. I'm Troy Kitch. Imagine you're a fisherman and you've lived on the ocean for your entire life. Over the years, you've noticed changes. Maybe you have a sense that there are fewer fish these days, or you've noticed different kinds of seabirds flying around, or there seem to be more red tides. What's changed? How is the ocean changing now and what's it going to be like ten years from now? Those are the kind of questions that keep ocean researchers and coastal resource managers up at night.

[HOST] The ocean is home to millions of different forms of life … and yet we know surprisingly little about the creatures that live right along our shores, how they interact with each other, or how they're changing as the ocean environment they live in changes. But here's what we do know. We depend upon the ocean and the creatures that live there for many things … food, jobs, recreation, health. And the ocean and marine life are under a lot of pressure from things like overfishing, climate change, pollution, and ocean acidification. So what do we do about it? The key to answering that big question is getting the big picture about what's going on beneath the waves.

[HOST] NOAA's Gabrielle Canonico joins us by phone. Gabrielle is leading an effort to create what's called a nationwide marine biodiversity observation network, MBON for short. What's an MBON and how could it help? Well, to answer that you first need to know that Gabrielle works at the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System program at NOAA. And you can think of this system as a central point of coordination for data about the nation's ocean.

[GABRIELLE CANONICO] "So we do have an ocean observing system for the country. And we have typically focused on what we consider physical or chemical observations of the ocean, so a lot about water chemistry, water temperature, wind speeds, how currents are moving, but we have wanted to, for some time, bring biology and more information about animals into our national ocean observing system. We know that there are a lot of different groups that are studying animals and life in the ocean and collecting a lot of very interesting information, but we didn't have a way of bringing all of those groups together and looking at all the information that they provide in an integrated way. "

[HOST] So the vision of the U.S. MBON — the marine biodiversity observation network — is to catalog what's living down there in the ocean right now, how it's changing over time, and how marine life is interrelated and interdependent. The MBON, Gabrielle said, aims to observe all marine biodiversity around the nation — from microbes to whales — not just at one point in time, but over a span of years and decades.

[GABRIELLE CANONICO] "The definition of the term biodiversity includes plants, animals, really small microorganisms, the genes inside those animals, and the ecosystems that they form to live in. The oceans are where many different types of marine animals live, so that includes whales and dolphins, or birds and sea turtles, but also those microbes, or very small organisms and bacteria. And MBON is helping scientists look at the oceans to see if things are going well for the creatures who live there. By watching the ocean and watching where animals live and how they move, we can learn whether the habitat where they are is healthy. "

[HOST] And that, she said, will help people decide if certain areas in our ocean around the nation need protected or restored — which is good for marine life and also good for people.

[GABRIELLE CANONICO] "It's very clear that humans depend on the health of the life in the oceans for food, for jobs, for recreation even, so there are benefits in a lot of different areas to maintaining the health of the natural environment that we're all living and working and playing in. We are seeing many marine habitats and different species that are being threatened by things such as climate change, warming trends in ocean waters, the ocean acidification issue, pollution, overfishing … so there's a lot of human activity that's happening in and around the oceans that's impacting the marine habitats and the animals that live in those. And so having a better integrated long-term understanding of the status and change of those habitats and the life in the ocean is going to help us preserve our environment on which we depend."

[HOST] So how is MBON going to do this. Gabrielle said that creating a long-term marine biodiversity observation network for the nation isn't going to happen overnight. It's a really complicated problem to solve. The first step, now underway, is to show how such a network might work. NOAA, NASA, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the National Science Foundation have provided funding for three five-year demonstration projects around the country to do just that.

[GABRIELLE CANONICO] "We reached out to the research community and asked for proposals about how we might establish a MBON for the nation. We received quite a number of excellent proposals and, because funding is always limited, we were only able to select three of those. We launched those three demonstration projects in the Fall of 2014 and they're working in the Arctic in the U.S. Chukchi Sea, in Santa Barbara Channel off of the coast of California, and there's a third project that's working across multiple national marine sanctuaries — Florida Keys, Monterey Bay, and Flower Garden Banks."

[HOST] Gabrielle said that while NOAA is serving as the overall coordinator in this effort, the whole idea of the MBON is to include a large partnership of researchers and resource managers, so the demonstration projects bring in academic institutions, marine research institutes at universities, state wildlife resource management agencies, and NOAA researchers and national marine sanctuary teams. And these researchers are not only working on documenting the diversity of marine life in their particular regions of the country, they're also closely networking with each other.

[GABRIELLE CANONICO] "We asked those three projects to help inform the federal government about what they were finding and what the challenges are in creating a MBON, and work together on solutions so that really we're creating a network that we can sustain for the long-term."

[HOST] Part of the challenge in creating a nationwide network is learning how to best deal with the huge amounts of biological data that's being collected. And part of the challenge is that it's just plain hard to get a good picture of all the marine life in the ocean. Gabrielle said that's why MBON researchers are using as many different types of data collection tools and sensors as they can.

[GABRIELLE CANONICO] "It could be satellites, it could be ship-based observations, it could be information from water samples, or information that people onboard who are visually spotting a whale or a sea turtle or a type of bird — but all this different information is being integrated to have the best possible understanding of how life in the ocean is changing."

[HOST] Gabrielle also said that collecting biological data is a very different task than that of collecting physical and chemical properties of the ocean like water temperature, salinity levels, and currents — which is something that the U.S. observing community is already pretty good at.

[GABRIELLE CANONICO] "There are inherent challenges in dealing with biological observations and biological data. It's very different in its nature from the traditional physical and oceanographic data and observations that we've been handling within the context of our national ocean observing system. And so the demonstration projects really were intended to help us meet some of the challenges and learn some of the nuances of dealing with biological observations. We're making significant progress in regards to understanding some of the technologies that we could use from bio-optical imaging to use of an environmental DNA sampling and other techniques. And what we expect is that at the end of these demonstration projects, we will be able to continue some of the core activities established through this process to maintain a biological observations and data capability."

[HOST] Some of the new technologies the MBON researchers are working with will help to automate some of the biological data collection. This is needed, she said, because water-based exploration is challenging, time-consuming, and expensive . The bio-optical imaging Gabrielle just mentioned is a great example of how automation could be used.

[GABRIELLE CANONICO] "Imagery is very useful for underwater exploration and taking measurements and it's essential for recording biodiversity from autonomous vehicles — and autonomous means something like a glider — however, most of the imagery that we collect that way is currently analyzed manually which is very time-consuming and it's also expensive. So the Santa Barbara Channel MBON project is developing, with partners, image analysis techniques that are targeted at classifying underwater images in helping to understand what species we're seeing in those images."

[HOST] Another cutting edge tool the MBON partners are exploring is the use of DNA sampling.

[GABRIELLE CANONICO] "So we are working with a process of taking water samples and doing some sophisticated analysis of those to understand from genetic material in the water samples what animals have been present in the water body that we're sampling. And we're refining these techniques—they're very new and very challenging to deal with—but there's some promise in the environmental DNA idea because it enables us to, in a less invasive way, understand the presence or absence of certain types of animals in the water."

[HOST] Gabrielle said that the MBON isn't just aiming to take one snapshot of this biodiversity, but rather aims to keep an up-to-date tab on ocean life over time by combining together all possible tools and techniques to sample biological life in the ocean.

[GABRIELLE CANONICO] "So we could take a snapshot — in fact, there was a ten year effort called the Census of Marine Life that wrapped up in 2010 — that did just that. It took a census of life in marine communities. O ne of the things that the Census of Marine Life pointed out was that we don't have a systematic, integrated way for continuing to observe life in the ocean and that we do need it, because of natural systems but also human induced systems, life in the ocean is always changing. So we need to understand the nature of those changes, perhaps understand the causes of those changes, and make management decisions where we need to, that are in the interest of the human communities that depend on the ocean's systems."

[HOST] I asked Gabrielle for a specific example of this from one of the demonstration project areas.

[GABRIELLE CANONICO] "Something that's interesting to the teams in the Arctic are some of the trophic interactions and, by trophic, that means interactions up the food chain. For example, we have animals such as walruses that, one of their primary food sources might be certain types of shellfish, so understanding the health of animals such as shellfish that might be lower on the food chain help us to predict and know where to think about management or conservation or impacts to some of the higher-order animals such as walruses, polar bears, that sort of thing. We are really looking at how things are connected together. It's really important that we're not just focused on the more charismatic species that people understand and can relate to such as whales, but we really need to understand how those large animals might also be impacted by the changes to the populations of food that they prey upon. "

[HOST] How do researchers get to this biological information? On the Internet, of course. The beta of the MBON portal is now available on the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System website — you'll here Gabrielle refer to this program in a moment by it's acronym, U.S. IOOS.

[GABRIELLE CANONICO] "The MBON portal is available online through the U.S. IOOS website, but also it's being developed with input and relying heavily on expertise of data managers within the regional associations of IOOS. So IOOS has eleven regional associations all along the U.S. coasts and the Great Lakes and each of those regional groups has a team that's focused on data management and communication and they have great expertise in dealing with physical and chemical and biogeochemical data and they're growing their expertise in dealing with biological data. So for the MBON demonstration projects, each of the demonstrations is working closely with the regional association in the geographic area where that demonstration project is operating."

[HOST] And through that web portal, researchers can now get to information that's been collected so far about marine life in the three pilot project areas — and hopefully someday soon it'll be home to marine biodiversity data for the entire nation. And that's something that we'll need, Gabrielle said, to preserve our ocean and the creatures that live there for generations to come.

[GABRIELLE CANONICO] "We really rely on ocean resources. A lot people live near the ocean. We play in the ocean. We swim and kayak and snorkel and dive. We eat fish. We're really reliant on the ocean for a lot that we do, in some cases for our livelihoods. And if we want to sustain life in the ocean, we need longterm sustained information about the status of life in the ocean, whether it's changing because of things that we do on the land and how it's changing and how we might help to preserve it. In MBON, we're bringing together information about life in the ocean and this picture of what's happening in the ocean and to the life that lives there is helping marine resource managers, policy makers in government to develop tools to address threats to that life in the ocean."

[HOST] That was NOAA's Gabrielle Canonico, program manager with the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System and coordinator of the U.S. Marine Biodiversity Observation Network. Thanks for listening to the NOAA Ocean podcast. Head to for episode show notes and links for today's topic.