Project overview

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MERP Research Outline Diagram ©

The £5 million Marine Ecosystems Research Programme (MERP) is jointly funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The project started in 2014 and will run for five years. The reserach will be undertaken by over 50 UK scientists from 12 research organisations.

The MERP consortium will include a blend of early and mid to late career researchers united by large-scale thinking and a multidisciplinary approach. The following partners will be involved in the programme: Bangor University, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, National Oceanography Centre, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Queen Mary University of London, Queens University Belfast, Scottish Association for Marine Science, Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, University of Glasgow, University of Sheffield and the University of Strathclyde.

MERP was formerly known as Integrating Macroecology and Modelling to Elucidate Regulation of Services from Ecosystems (IMMERSE) and the WP2 Developing a model based understanding of ecosystem service regulation grants. MERP was created when two grants were combined to make an over arching programme.

MERP will address key knowledge gaps in marine ecosystem research. By bringing together existing data and targeted new data, the programme scientists will integrate these data with current models and knowledge of ecosystem services within a common framework, in order to improve understanding of the whole UK marine ecosystem. The programme will facilitate the development of a more accurate suite of marine ecosystem models and provide vital evidence, tools and advice to policy makers and environmental managers, including the development and implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), the Marine and Coastal Access Act, Marine (Scotland) Act, Common Fisheries Policy and the OSPAR Joint Assessment and Monitoring Programme as well as the work of UK government departments. MERP research supports an ecosystem approach to policy, regulatory and management initiatives, including the implementation of the EU Biodiversity Strategy, the Natural Environment White Paper and the further development of the Marine Protected Area network.

Project Aims

  • Improve understanding of how the regulation of key ecosystem services afforded by marine food webs, such as nutrient cycling, climate regulation, food production and recreation, are affected by top down and bottom up processes, the scale of these processes and the way that biodiversity influences ecosystem function at different levels of the food web.
  • Integrate the improved knowledge and understanding of how the regulation of key ecosystem services are affected by top-down and bottom-up processes with existing ecosystem models, in order to explore the impact of environmental change on the structure, function and services associated with marine food webs across a range of scales.
  • Apply the new model developments to test the impact of potential management solutions, such as marine conservation zones, on the structure and function of marine food webs across scales, and explore the efficacy of specific indicators of good environmental status.

Project Modules

MERP is structured around six work modules that will enhance understanding of the dynamics of ecosystem services provided by marine ecosystems. The novel, inter-disciplinary marine ecosystem science in this programme will lead to a mechanism for providing advice on the likelihood of changes in ecosystem services in response to future environmental changes.

Module 1: Marine ecosystem data toolbox and Macroecology

Module 2: Fieldwork to measure poorly known processes

Module 3: Ecological processes and their representation in models

Module 4: Simulating and predicting ecosystem changes using model ensemble

Module 5: Linking macroecology and models to ecosystem services

Module 6: Developing a model-based understanding of ecosystem service regulation

Through these modules, the Marine Ecosystems Research Programme will enable novel integrated marine ecosystem science to increase the understanding of the dynamics of ecosystem services provided by the UK marine environment. This will lead to a mechanism for providing advice on the likelihood of changes in ecosystem services in response to future changes in human activity and the environment. Through targeted field work and experiments a new understanding of currently under-sampled or not adequately represented features will be included in existing ecosystem models.

Fieldwork and data collection

Module 2 of MERP uses fieldwork to measure poorly known processes. Key under-sampled and inadequately represented components and properties of marine ecosystem models have been identified within the project. A programme of field surveys and experiments were conducted to increase understanding of these features and arrange for the inclusion of new information into models. Module 2 specifically addresses improving understanding of marine ecosystem responses to specific bottom up and top-down perturbations through the novel combination of existing long-term data, new field-based and experimental observations with recent theoretical advances from marine and terrestrial ecology.

Fieldwork was conducted on Poseidon, an annual pelagic sampling cruise undertaken aboard Cefas Endeavour spanning the autumn bloom in 2015, using RV Prince Madog to take additional samples at a subset of the stations. Stations were harmonised with those sampled the previous year on the NERC Shelf Sea Biogeochemistry Programme. Together, the 2-ship cruise will quantify food webs and size-spectra over crossed gradients of primary production. A second Prince Madog cruise, during the spring bloom of 2016 repeated this sampling coverage. To provide seasonal coverage, the Plymouth L4 site was monitored monthly throughout 2015.