Program Focus 1: Global Seamount Assessment Program (GSAP)

A New International Research Initiative

Seamount-Coral3Oceanic seamount ecosystems are one of the largest biomes in the ocean, with an estimated collective land mass the size of Europe. Seamounts host an abundance of demersal deep-sea fish populations; highly diverse deep-sea coral reefs; and are hotspots of pelagic biodiversity and high biomass. These ecosystems are also increasingly impacted by unsustainable and destructive fishing practices, planned seabed mining and climate change.

“There is widespread consensus that biological components of seamounts are highly vulnerable and sensitive to human disturbance and exploitation…impacts from bottom-contact fishing can be massive, and recovery times may be in the range of decades to centuries. Mining for mineral deposits on seamounts presents a new, and potentially large, threat to seamount ecosystems, and emphasizes a need for global, scientifically robust conservation and management planning for seamounts.

“There are many aspects of seamount and deep-sea ecosystem structure and function that we do not understand, and which may in the long-term be critical for effective management. Arguably, we have proposed that the priorities for science that can best inform management are at present to describe structural patterns over various spatial scales, rather than in-depth studies of a small number of seamounts”

From: Clark MR, et al (2012) Science Priorities for Seamounts: Research Links to Conservation and Management. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29232.

The Global Census of Marine Life on Seamounts (CenSeam), launched under the recently completed Census of Marine Life, worked to increase our knowledge of seamount ecosystems and to evaluate the effects of human impacts on these important ecosystems – yet today their structure, biodiversity, function and connectivity continue to remain largely unexplored and unknown.

To better understand these major structures as complex ecosystems, Global Oceans together with Alex Rogers, Ph.D. of the University of Oxford, have launched the Global Seamount Assessment Program (GSAP), a new six-year global study of oceanic seamounts. An initial GSAP Science Advisory Committee has been formed (below) to review and contribute to the developing proposal. The Committee includes leading scientists from the CenSeam program and has recently added two ecosystem modeling experts, Brian D. Fath, Ph.D. of Towson University (Towson, MD, USA) and Ursula Scharler, Ph.D. of the University of Kwazulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa).

Objectives and Outputs

The goal of the GSAP project is to significantly accelerate our understanding of complex ecosystem function on seamounts from a timeframe that is “a long way in the future” (Clark MR, et al – above) to within the next few years. A more integrated understanding of these systems is critical to answering questions about resilience to human impact and climate change, environmental drivers of biodiversity, and most effective strategies for conservation, protection and sustainable management.

GSAP will develop a standardized sampling, research and observation science plan that can be replicated uniformly and scaled-up across targeted seamount systems. It will examine a more comprehensive spatial range than has previously been made – from the ocean surface, to the summit, down the flanks, around the base and onto the abyssal plains.  This new approach will generate multidisciplinary sets of inter-calibrated data with the necessary scope and resolution to develop new ecosystem models of seamounts and to better answer questions about the interconnection, endemism, biodiversity, ecosystem function, resilience and vulnerability to disturbance of these large systems.

The modeling component of the project will incorporate recent developments in hierarchy, thermodynamic and network theories in ecosystem modeling; agent-based modeling strategies; a new understanding of the role of biodiversity in ecosystem stability; and greater computing power now available. Uniquely for ecosystem modeling projects, GSAP will align the research and data plan with modeling strategy at the outset of the project. GSAP will also utilize new in-field high-throughput genomics technologies and methods being validated this year to generate much more extensive biodiversity data that can feed into the ecosystem models.

The project proposes to study up to 120 oceanic seamount systems within several ocean basins, including previously studied seamounts where additional data will complement earlier studies, and unexplored and understudied regions where our knowledge of seamount systems is tentative or nonexistent.

MARV Strategy Enables Large-Scale Research

ROV_GSAPA critical aspect of this program is the specification and integration of necessary infrastructure and expedition assets on an adaptive basis in tandem with the development of the science plan and ecosystem modeling objectives. This strategy will ensure that the required ocean-going ships and scientific assets needed will be precisely aligned and mobilized to achieve the objectives on schedule.

Research vessels and deep-sea exploration vehicles and instrumentation will be mobilized and deployed by Global Oceans utilizing the MARV approach of adapting regionally deployed time-chartered offshore service vessels for scientific research. Sampling and analytical assets including ROVs, submersibles, AUVs, modular lab and workspace systems, and instrumentation to support chemical analytics, genomics, microbiology, and other disciplines will be adaptively configured to support each phase of the project.

Alex Rogers, Ph.D., Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Oxford, UK and an expert on deep-sea ecosystems and cold-water corals is Program Development Advisor for the project and Chair of the GSAP Scientific Advisory Committee.

Alex Rogers stated:

Alex-Rogers“The intention with GSAP is to leverage the collaborative, organizational and scientific framework developed and put into practice by the recently completed CenSeam initiative; focusing on lessons learned from that study to design an integrated set of sampling and analytical strategies that will more effectively fill key spatial, ecological, taxonomic and disciplinary data gaps; across geographically representative and understudied regions.

Building on CenSeam’s operational framework will also facilitate an administratively lean and cost-efficient organizational structure for the new programme.”

Toward Sustainability: New Ecosystem Models for Seamounts

The field of systems analysis is increasingly able to take a more holistic approach to modelling complex systems with greater predictive confidence – better datasets, improved models, greater understanding of processes and interactions between components, and computing power are all factors. However, modelers are often left with data collected for a different purpose, requiring more calibration, model verification and outcomes analysis. Ecological modelling is seldom a part of an initial program design planned concurrently with data gathering to suit models being developed.

Two experts in ecosystem modeling have joined the GSAP Scientific Advisory Committee to assist in formulating a modeling strategy:

Brian_FathBrian D. Fath, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Biological Sciences at Towson University in Maryland, USA specializes in systems ecology, network analysis, ecosystems ecology, sustainability and integrated environmental assessment. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Elsevier journal Ecological Modelling and a Research Scholar in the Advanced Systems Analysis Program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria.


Ursula-Schaler2Ursula Scharler, Ph.D., Professor, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa specializes in theoretical and applied ecology. She is leading efforts to advance systems analysis in South Africa, in cooperation with IIASA and South African institutes and universities, and is a member of the steering committee of the South African Network for Coastal and Oceanic Research (SANCOR). Professor Scharler is Subject Editor for the Elsevier journal Ecological Modelling.

Ursula Scharler stated about GSAP’s strategy:

“Normally we develop a network analysis for ecosystems with existing data sets, many of which are estimates, so we need to run sensitivity analyses against them and end up with data clouds with confidence limits that can be very large. GSAP is an approach that brings these two activities together at the planning phase.

GSAP’s strategy to align data gathered from the project from the outset, at sufficient resolution and scale, with collaborative modelling efforts focused on answering key questions is very unique and will be extremely valuable for considerably increasing our predictive capability and understanding of these systems.”   

The project is beginning to define where new approaches in systems analysis and  ecosystem modeling can have the greatest contribution: understanding connectivity of populations within and between seamounts; spawning events and larval distribution in relation to currents and upwelling; integration of biodiversity and genetic gradients; and the structure and dynamics of food webs. These will enable assessments of fisheries; local-scale marine special planning frameworks to inform zoning and conservation efforts; and network analyses of migrations of predators and seamount-related fauna through tagging and tracking studies.

David Vousden: On GSAP and the UN Treaty Process

In June 2015 the UN General Assembly adopted a formal resolution to develop the framework for an unprecedented legally-binding treaty for the conservation of marine biodiversity on the ‘high seas’ and in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ). UN Resolution UNGA 99/292 authorizes a two-year preparatory process to develop elements of a new treaty proposal, with a decision to convene a negotiating conference to be taken up in 2018.  A more comprehensive, integrated understanding of seamount biodiversity, function and vulnerability coming out of the GSAP study will put the scientific community in a better position to inform this UN process as it develops.

David Vousden, PhD, Professor of Ocean Policy at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa is a member of the GSAP Science Advisory Committee:

David-Vousden“The Global Seamount Assessment Programme (GSAP) is an important initiative being developed by Global Oceans in the US in collaboration with experts at Oxford University in the UK. GSAP is now particularly important in light of the recent and ground-breaking decision by the UN General Assembly to develop the framework for a legally-binding treaty for the conservation of marine biodiversity on the high seas and in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ).

“It builds on the valuable work that has already been undertaken by CenSeam as well as by efforts such as a Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) recent project on ecosystems approaches to managing fisheries in the Indian Ocean. GSAP aims to build scientific knowledge on seamounts to a level whereby informed and knowledge-based decisions can be made regarding their sustainable management and exploitation.”

The GSAP Science Advisory Committee

Alex Rogers, Ph.D. (Program Chair), Professor of Conservation Biology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK (Seamount biodiversity, ecology, evolution)

Malcolm Clark, Ph.D., (Program Co-Chair) Principal Scientist, National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research (NIWA), Wellington, New Zealand (Seamount ecology and fisheries)

Ursula Scharler, Ph.D. (Program Co-Chair), Professor, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa (Theoretical and applied ecology, systems analysis)

Bernd Christiansen, Ph.D., Professor, Institute of Hydrobiology and Fisheries Science, University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany (Seamount food webs)

David Vousden, Ph.D., Professor of Ocean Governance, Rhodes University; Grahamstown, South Africa; United Nations Advisor on Ocean and Coastal Management (Ocean policy)

Patrick Halpin, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Marine Geospatial Ecology, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA (Marine geospatial analysis, remote sensing)

Tim O’Hara, Ph.D., Deputy Head, Marine Sciences, Museum of Victoria, Victoria, Australia (Seamount biogeography)

Javier Sellanes, Ph.D., Associate Researcher, Catholic University of the North, Chile (Ecology of benthic fauna on seamounts)

Brian D. Fath, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Towson University, Maryland, USA (Systems ecology, network analysis, ecosystems ecology, sustainability and integrated environmental assessment)

Paul Snelgrove, Ph.D., University Research Professor, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland, Canada (Benthic, deep-sea and coral reef ecology)