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Assessing sensitivities of marine areas to stressors based on biological traits

Hewitt, Judi E., Lundquist, Carolyn J., Ellis, Joanne
Conservation biology 2019 v.33 no.1 pp. 142-151
anthropogenic activities, biodiversity, community structure, conservation areas, habitats, humans, planning, prediction, prioritization, risk, risk assessment, suspended sediment
Analysis of the biological traits (e.g., feeding mode and size) that control how organisms interact with their environment has been used to identify environmental drivers of, or impacts on, species and to explain the importance of biodiversity loss. Biological trait analysis (BTA) could also be used within riskā€assessment frameworks or in conservation planning if one understands the groups of traits that predict the sensitivity of habitats or communities to specific human activities. Deriving sensitivities from BTA should extend sensitivity predictions to a variety of habitats, especially those in which it would be difficult to conduct experiments (e.g., due to depth or risk to human life) and to scales beyond the norm of most experiments. We used data on epibenthos, collected via video along transects at 27 sites in a relatively pristine region of the seafloor, to determine scales of natural spatial variability of derived sensitivities and the degree to which predictions of sensitivity differed among 3 stressors (extraction of species, sedimentation, and suspended sediments) or were affected by underlying community compositions. We used 3 metrics (weighted abundance, abundance of highly sensitive species, and number of highly sensitive species) to derive sensitivity to these stressors and simulated the ability of these metrics to detect a range of stressor intensities. Regardless of spatial patterns of sensitivities across the sampled area, BTA distinguished differences in sensitivity to different stressors. The BTA also successfully separated differences in community composition from differences in sensitivity to stressors. Conversely, the 3 metrics differed widely in their ability to detect simulated impacts and likely reflect underlying ecological processes, suggesting that use of multiple metrics would be informative for spatial planning and allocating conservation priorities. Our results suggest BTA could be used as a first step in strategic prioritization of protected areas and as an underlying layer for spatial planning.