The high seas is both a single thing and the sum of many parts. It is singular because it is connected by both currents and by species. However, it is also seamounts and hydrothermal vents and gyres, and convergence zones, and fracture zones and the “midnight zone”… and the list goes on. Even if we zoom out, the ocean still has clear structure: biomes containing biogeographic provinces, provinces that hold ecosystems, persistent features and habitats. Even down to microscopic scales, turbulence and friction create heterogeneity in the oceans. So, you might say, the high seas both is and are.
Spatial ecology seeks to understand both personas. We use species density and distribution models to understand animal (and boat) movement across jurisdictions, and network theory to develop models of how oceanography and migrations connect distant areas of the ocean. We also use biogeography and seascape ecology to describe the patchiness of the ocean across many scales.
While these aspects of ecology are just plain interesting in their own right (you’ll have to trust us…), they are also critical to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Connectivity is critical to the design of networks of marine protected areas- it is, in fact, the difference between a “network” and a group of individual protected areas. Biogeographical classifications are the basis for understanding whether such networks appropriately “represent” the variety of a region. The spatial structure of populations is vital to understanding how fish stocks or a population of protected albatrosses might withstand anthropogenic impacts (like mortality from fishing).
Duke scientists, led by Pat Halpin and Daniel Dunn of the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab (MGEL), have been intimately involved in bringing geospatial information to bear on policy processes in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Duke has informed consultations or management measures at the United Nations, the International Seabed Authority, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention on Migratory Species, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Regional Fisheries Management Bodies and Regional Seas Organization, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural and Organization (UNESCO) and numerous other intergovernmental organizations.