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How to Map an Ocean

A Prime Tool for Scientists to Show Conservation Priorities

Ocean mapping is a technique used to display data to visualize the marine environment. By overlaying series of maps, scientists can show biological and physical information in relation to a variety of other commercial, industrial, recreational, and governmental interests. Associated coastal maps can include predicted sea level rises and associated risks. Add related habitat maps that show clusters of species within a specific environment. Add in location and migration data for ocean mammals such as whales and dolphins, and you can develop a truly comprehensive look.

Kevin Ruddock, GIS Analyst for The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island, has been working on ocean mapping for two years now. “Ocean mapping is a prime tool for scientists and a powerful teaching aid for organizations like TNC” he said. “We can share this information with conservation partners and the public to build support for the big idea of saving our oceans and smaller initiatives that can help specific areas.” 

As part of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Ecoregional Assessment, Conservancy scientists used data from a number of sources to map and analyze the distribution and abundance of marine species and processes. This analysis helps us to locate places that support a diverse abundance of ocean life. In addition to mapping species distribution based on observation and sampling of fish in the water column, a lot can be learned about the marine environment through careful analysis of the physical structure of the seafloor.

The Conservancy’s Mark Anderson, Director of Conservation Science for the Eastern Division, and his team developed a classification of seafloor habitats that uses these physical characteristics, guided by detailed information from biological samples of the seafloor. The analysis lets the known distribution of organisms guide the classification of the sea floor into habitats described by their sediment type (sand, silt, or gravel, etc.), depth, and seafloor topography. The seafloor topography model differentiates features such as vast underwater flats and steep canyons. Together these physical characteristics are an important factor in determining the species that use each habitat. By using these physical features, we can predict with a certain degree of confidence what species we will find in places without the need to sample every piece of the sea floor.

Kevin has been busy applying that information to Rhode Island waters. “When we combine data from the seafloor modeling, fish samples from the water column, mammal and turtle surveys, data describing the temperature patterns of ocean water, coastal habitat information and patterns of human use, we create a comprehensive picture of the ocean environment that will help us guide the conservation and wise use of this unique resource.” Kevin’s information will be included in the Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan, part of a national effort to plan for the host of uses in our oceans. 

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