Monitoring changes in North Atlantic plankton communities

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The North Atlantic is the largest oceanic water mass associated with Europe and thus a key area for the EUR-OCEANS network. The outcome of many nationally-funded research programmes over the last decade had been the realisation that human impacts (e.g. climate change, species introductions) apply across the North Atlantic basin, thus requiring the cohesive and coordinated research promoted by EUR-OCEANS. This Fact Sheet introduces some of the conclusions regarding possible human induced changes in the North East Atlantic planktonic communities over the last 50 years. These conclusions are based on long-term plankton records which are valuable for documenting ecosystem changes, for helping to separate natural and anthropogenic changes, and for generating and analyzing testable hypotheses. Over the last decade, interest in long-term plankton sampling has increased. However, long timeseries are still uncommon. The purpose of long-term monitoring is to establish a baseline for the various components of the ecosystem, and how they interact. Information can be used to:

  • distinguish between the effects of human activities and natural variability
  • define baselines and estimate the recovery time of the system after human or environmental perturbations
  • develop hypotheses about causal relationships which can then be investigated
  • verify and validate models used to predict changes in marine ecosystems on the basis of climate scenarios, and
  • evaluate management actions.

Climate change

Long-term variations in plankton abundance in the North Atlantic ecosystem have been investigated by the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) survey since 1946 as well as at several fixed coastal monitoring stations.

Black dots show zooplankton sampling sites in the North Atlantic, background shows SeaWiFS satellite chlorophyll distribution. Map: Todd O’Brien, NMFS-COPEPOD, USA

Studies show that key mechanisms link environmental forcing and plankton response i.e. timing and intensity of the spring phytoplankton bloom resulting from changes in stratification levels, changes in temperature, and, in the case of the copepod Calanus finmarchicus, advection of the population into the North Sea at the end of the winter season. The NE Atlantic has warmed 2-3°C over the last 50 years. This has resulted in a northwards shift (of approximately 1000km) in warm water plankton communities. There has also been a decrease in the key copepod Calanus finmarchicus and an increase Calanus helgolandicus. Such a shift could impact on the whole ecosystem, for example larval/juvenile cod feed on C. finmarchicus, its replacement by C. helgolandicus may therefore have a detrimental effect on their overall viability because both species are abundant at different times of the year. Such changes may have exacerbated the impact of over-fishing in reducing recruitment of North Sea cod since the mid-1980s.