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Ecosystem Function

Artic seafloor communities.  Photo credit: Heike LinkObjective: to determine how species contribute to the way that marine ecosystems function and how species and function relate to ocean health and disturbances, including natural and human sources.

The concept of ‘ecosystem health’ recognizes critical links between the physical, biological, and human dimensions of ecosystems and has become a key concept in policy development. Describing ecological processes in terms of the provision of goods and services (ecosystem services) quantifies the direct and indirect benefits that humans obtain or lose when resources are exploited unsustainably or habitat is lost or damaged. 

Observed changes in marine biodiversity and the functioning of marine ecosystems over the past decades are driven by a combination of physical factors and human-related activities. Environmental changes include shifts to warmer, less salty seawater, ocean acidification, and declining extent and thickness of sea ice. Corresponding biological change includes overexploitation and altered food webs in waters off all three of Canada’s coastlines. These changes indicate that the health of marine habitats is at risk. We must understand the consequences of biodiversity changes on ecosystem function and services in order to develop effective regulatory strategies to protect ocean resources from environmental degradation and over-harvesting.

CHONe’s Ecosystem Function research projects explore:

  • Natural variation in biodiversity and marine ecosystem services particularly in seafloor environments including the deep sea; 
  • Anthropogenic, or human, pressures on biodiversity and marine ecosystem services; 
  • New tools for assessing ecosystem health to predict effects of changes in biodiversity on ecosystem function and services.

Sampling Arctic benthic aboard CCGS Amundsen: ©Philippe ArchambaultResearch is pursued through:

  • Extensive field research including the Arctic and the deep sea, involving various methods of habitat sampling; 
  • Developing new image recognition and GIS-based tools for monitoring ecosystem status and for MPA design; 
  • Genetic analyses; 
  • Laboratory analysis of field samples and laboratory and field experiments to determine linkages and effects;
  • Model development to link biodiversity to ecosystem function.


The results will serve to:

  1. Understand and predict the role of biodiversity in marine ecosystem services by quantifying links between biodiversity and ecosystem function measures;
  2. Develop indices of ocean health;
  3. Provide predictive models to help minimize human impacts on ecosystem services and health; 
  4. Provide quantitative tools for managing ecosystem health, such as more efficient survey tools and image recognition; and 
  5. New tools, such as decision-making frameworks and ecosystem modeling to facilitate conservation strategies.

See project list, for more information on individual projects within this theme.

See publications list for research publications and presentations within this theme.

Watch a video of MSc student, Ashley Robar, discussing her research on macrofaunal patterns and ecosystem services in deep-sea sediments.

Listen to Ryan Cloutier, MSc student, about his ancient rockfish at risk of extinction.

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