Science screens inside of a boat

Marine habitat mapping is a critical part of moving toward our sustainable use of the marine environment. Habitat maps provide us with a greater understanding of the distribution and extent of marine habitats. They allow us to visualise what we have and where it is in relation to human use of the marine environment. Thus we can assess if a habitat is rare, or threatened by human activities; we can begin to understand whether particular habitats are important to fish stocks as fish nurseries or birthing grounds; we can identify areas that may need protection as Marine Protected Areas; but most importantly, we can begin to make informed choices about how we manage our marine resources. The European Commission recognises habitat mapping as providing new opportunities for blue growth and jobs in seas and oceans, and has proposed the creation of a digital seabed map of European waters by 2020.

Habitat mapping is a broad term encompassing strictly geological maps produced from acoustic survey of the seabed, to mapping of defined biological assemblages or ‘biotopes’ (e.g. coral reef, sea-grass bed, mussel bed, etc.). It is a new and rapidly expanding field, and thus there are a great deal of questions to be answered concerning the best methods and standards to use in acquiring and processing data, habitat classification terms and systems, and the reliability of the maps produced.

Habitat mapping research

Professor Kerry Howell and her team are at the leading edge in the field of deep-sea habitat ‘biotope’ mapping, and deep-sea habitat classification. Professor Howell, her team and collaborators have been working with UK Government departments such as the former Department for Trade and Industry(1,2) and agencies such as the Joint Nature Conservation Committee(3,4,5,6), mapping the UK’s deep sea habitats to inform the sustainable management of this area. They have published research on broad scale deep-sea habitat classification(7) and their research has been taken up for use in the UK Government's UK Sea Map 2010 project. They have published the first research papers demonstrating the use of predictive modelling approaches to deep-sea habitat (biotope) mapping(8,9) and the application of these maps to environmental monitoring and MPA network design(9).

Professor Howell’s latest research in this area is focused around: 1) developing novel techniques for mapping benthic biology at both broad and fine scales; and 2) working with our European partners to develop the EUNIS habitat classification system such that it can adequately represent deep-sea biodiversity. This research is being undertaken through the Mapping the Deep project and through Deep-Sea EUNIS.

The European Habitat Classification system (EUNIS) currently lists 7 deep-sea biotopes. This makes it of limited use to those engaged in deep-sea biotope mapping since there are clearly more than 7 different types of recognisable deep-sea benthic assemblages. Dr Howell and her team have been working with UK Government to define new deep-sea biotopes for incorporation into the EUNIS classification system(2,3,4,5,10). Dr Howell and her team have also been working with international partners involved in the MESH Atlantic programme and the CoralFish programme, to define new European level deep-sea biotopes. A recent international workshop hosted by Dr Howell at University of Plymouth resulted in the draft descriptions of over 100 new deep-sea biotopes. This new draft biotope catalogue will hopefully provide a ‘common language’ of units for European deep-sea biotope mapping, and the basis of a future development of the deep-sea section of the EUNIS habitat classification scheme.

One of the discovered coral reefs


1. Narayanaswamy, B.E., Howell, K.L., Hughes, D.J., Davies, J.S., Roberts, J.M., and Black, K.D. (2006). Strategic Environmental Assessment Area 7 Photographic Analysis Report. Department of Trade and Industry, Strategic Environmental Assessment Report, UK, 179p.
2. Howell, K.L., Davies, J.S., Hughes, D.J., and Narayanaswamy, B.E. (2007). Strategic Environmental Assessment / Special Area for Conservation Photographic Analysis Report. Department of Trade and Industry, Strategic Environmental Assessment Report, UK. 82p.
3. Howell, K.L., Davies J.S., Jacobs, C., and Narayanaswamy B.E. (2009). Broadscale Survey of the Habitats of Rockall Bank, and mapping of Annex I ‘Reef’ Habitat. Joint Nature Conservation Committee Report.
4. Davies, J., Guinan, J., Howell, K., Stewart, H. & Verling, E. (editor) (2008) MESH South West Approaches Canyons Survey (MESH Cruise 01-07-01) Final Report. Mapping European Seabed Habitats (MESH) Project Report. 156p.
5. Long, D., Howell, K.L., Davies, J., Stewart, H. (2010) JNCC Offshore Natura survey of Anton Dohrn Seamount and East Rockall Bank Areas of Search. Joint Nature Conservation Committee Report 437, 132p.
6. Howell, K.L., Embling, C., Holt, R., Stewart, H.A. (2011) Using predictive modelling to map the distribution of selected habitats listed as MPA search features in Scottish waters. Joint Nature Conservation Committee Report. Unpublished.
7. Howell, K.L. (2010) A benthic classification system to aid in the implementation of marine protected area networks in the deep / high seas of the NE Atlantic. Biological Conservation. 143, 1041–1056.
8. Howell, K.L., Holt, R., Pulido Endrino, I., Stewart, H. (2011) When the species is also a habitat: comparing the predictively modelled distributions of Lophelia pertusa and the reef habitat it forms. Biological Conservation. 144, 2656–2665.
9. Ross, R, Howell, K.L. (2012) Use of predictive habitat modelling to assess the distribution and extent of the current protection of 'listed' deep-sea habitats. Diversity and Distributions. In Press
10. Howell, K.L., Davies J.S., and Narayanaswamy, B.E. (2010). Identifying deep-sea megafaunal epibenthic assemblages for use in habitat mapping and marine protected area network design. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 90 , pp 33-68