Deep sea conservation research

The research of Dr Kerry Howell and her team focusses on deep-sea ecology, deep-sea conservation and management, spatial planning, high seas / deep-sea marine protected areas, habitat classification, habitat mapping, predictive species modelling, deep-sea food webs, and the ecosystem impacts of deep-water fisheries.

Dr Howell and members of her team have conducted deep-sea surveys for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) in UK waters, participating in cruises to collect video data and using predictive modelling and habitat mapping methods to produce maps that help to conserve deep-sea species by informing the policy makers that create Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Mapping the deep project

Dr Kerry Howell and her research team are leading the way in the field of deep-sea habitat mapping through the Mapping the Deep Project. This project will provide marine environmental managers with accurate maps on which to make decisions about where we allow human activities such as fishing and mining to go on, and placement of Marine Protected Areas. These maps will also allow us to learn more about what habitats are in our deep-sea, which ones are rare, and which are most vulnerable to human activities.

The mapping the deep project uses state of the art equipment such as multibeam and Remotely Operated Vehicles, combined with modelling techniques to look at the different habitats in the deep-sea and the environmental conditions they are found under. For example, if we can show that cold water coral reefs are most likely to grow at certain depths, on rocky, sloped terrain, we can use this knowledge to predict where else might expect to find them. This is the basis if predictive habitat mapping.

The Mapping the Deep project has already produced coarse scale predictive maps of the distribution of three highly vulnerable deep-sea habitats which can now be used to help target future survey and conservation work. Further details about the Mapping the Deep project are available in our project film.

NERC project

In 2012 Dr Kerry Howell was allocated Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funding to supervise a PhD studentship entitled “Investigating the role of offshore banks and seamounts as stepping stones for dispersal”. Rebecca Ross is the student who will be working on this interdisciplinary project which combines the biological modelling of the 'mapping the deep' project with physical oceanographic modelling in order to assess the dispersal ability and connectivity of deep-sea animal populations.

The project aims to provide empirical evidence to three current seamount theories: seamounts are important stepping stones for trans-oceanic dispersal of species; populations of invertebrates on seamounts are the source of propagules for nearby slope sinks; and that seamounts have acted and can act as biological refugia from large-scale catastrophic environmental events.

The importance of seamounts and other topographic highs in the dispersal of larvae is also important in the context of marine conservation - global efforts to establish networks of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) require a basic understanding of how populations are connected in order to ensure MPA networks are ‘ecologically coherent’. This project is co-supervised by Dr Alex Nimmo Smith and Dr Vasyl Vlasenko of Plymouth University.