Mapping habitats and developing baselines in offshore marine reserves with little prior knowledge: a critical evaluation of a new approach

he recently declared Australian Commonwealth Marine Reserve (CMR) Network covers a total of 3.1 million km2 of continental shelf, slope, and abyssal habitat. Managing and conserving the biodiversity values within this network requires knowledge of the physical and biological assets that lie within its boundaries. Unfortunately very little is known about the habitats and biological assemblages of the continental shelf within the network, where diversity is richest and anthropogenic pressures are greatest. Effective management of the CMR estate into the future requires this knowledge gap to be filled efficiently and quantitatively. The challenge is particularly great for the shelf as multibeam echosounder (MBES) mapping, a key tool for identifying and quantifying habitat distribution, is time consuming in shallow depths, so full coverage mapping of the CMR shelf assets is unrealistic in the medium-term. Here we report on the results of a study undertaken in the Flinders Commonwealth Marine Reserve (southeast Australia) designed to test the benefits of two approaches to characterising shelf habitats: (i) MBES mapping of a continuous (~30 km2) area selected on the basis of its potential to include a range of seabed habitats that are potentially representative of the wider area, versus; (ii) a novel approach that uses targeted mapping of a greater number of smaller, but spatially balanced, locations using a Generalized Random Tessellation Stratified sample design. We present the first quantitative estimates of habitat type and sessile biological communities on the shelf of the Flinders reserve, the former based on three MBES analysis techniques. We contrast the quality of information that both survey approaches offer in combination with the three MBES analysis methods. The GRTS approach enables design based estimates of habitat types and sessile communities and also identifies potential biodiversity hotspots in the northwest corner of the reserve’s IUCN zone IV, and in locations close to shelf incising canyon heads. Design based estimates of habitats, however, vary substantially depending on the MBES analysis technique, highlighting the challenging nature of the reserve’s low profile reefs, and improvements that are needed when acquiring MBES data for small GRTS locations. We conclude that the two survey approaches are complementary and both have their place in a successful and flexible monitoring strategy; the emphasis on one method over the other should be considered on a case by case basis, taking into account the survey objectives and limitations imposed by the type of vessel, time available, size and location of the region where knowledge is required.

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