The Smithsonian Institution has inched closer to setting up a worldwide network of monitoring sites in coastal environments. Today, it announced that J. Emmett Duffy will be the first director of its Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network, which was launched in October 2012. But Duffy, a marine ecologist at the College of William & Mary's Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point, has a long way to go to realize this goal.
Interested in making its mark in climate change research, the Smithsonian has decided to focus on marine science by incorporating five existing research sites—two in Panama, and one each in Florida, Belize, and Maryland—into a network that would take the same long-term physical and biological measurements on designated plots. In this way, researchers could develop a sense of how coastal environments and their biodiversity are changing through time and also be able to compare data among sites.
"The plan is to expand out these activities to a large number of sites, hopefully to 10 in the next several years," Duffy says. The effort aims to do for coastal ecosystems what the Smithsonian's Global Earth Observatories does for forests. That program involves 51 patches of forest around the world where researchers chart tree growth, abundance, and distribution in periodic surveys. Some forests have been monitored for 35 years.
The marine network got its start with a $10 million gift last fall. It made possible the hiring of Duffy, who is interested in large-scale ecology and has worked to have biodiversity considered in public policy and incorporated into education. In 2011, he won Japan's Kobe Award in Marine Biology for his work on social tropical shrimp. He has experience with developing and operating research networks, having led the formation of the Zostera Experimental Network in 2010, which coordinates studies of eelgrass among about 15 research groups.
Duffy has big plans for the new network. In addition to coming up with monitoring protocols, he wants to begin standardized experiments at each site to assess ecological processes, determine human impacts, and discover how resident species are interacting to shape each community. Eventually, he hopes these experiments will be expanded to other sites. "Twenty years from now, I want to have good coverage of the entire global ocean, with sites in all major ocean basins, enough to really have a sense of how diversity is distributed and how it has changed," Duffy says.
The current network will include plots on the Chesapeake Bay at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland; on the Atlantic Ocean at a marine station in Fort Pierce, Florida; on the Caribbean at Carrie Bow Cay in Belize; and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's (STRI) Bocas del Toro in Panama and on the Pacific Ocean at STRI's Naos Island station. Duffy plans to set up partnerships with other institutions to bring more sites into the network.
"I think this is a great start," says marine ecologist Bruce Menge at Oregon State University, Corvallis. In 1999, he helped set up the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), which now includes 80 sites along the West Coast of North America doing the same sorts of measurements that Duffy has planned for his network. "Because there's a lot of complexity along the coast, there's a need for a fairly dense network especially initially," Menge says. The Smithsonian network would benefit from having more than one site in each region, he notes.
Getting a truly global network off the ground could be tough, he adds. PISCO at one point had partners in South Africa, Chile, and New Zealand, but after 6 years the funding dried up, and now there's much less participation by those countries. That effort also taught Menge that the bigger the network gets, the harder it becomes for all the network members to agree and follow standardized protocols. Going global, "requires funding—and that's going to be the biggest challenge," Menge says. But the Smithsonian "is sort of the ideal place to do this," Menge notes. And picking Duffy as the leader "was an ideal choice."