February 23, 2018  

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Marine Science Research Supported by Prestigious Lenfest Grant

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Southern Miss Marine Science researchers are studying the impact of jellyfish on the ecosystem with funding from the prestigious Lenfest Program.
Southern Miss Marine Science researchers are studying the impact of jellyfish on the ecosystem with funding from the prestigious Lenfest Program.

Its international reputation as a leader in marine research has earned The University of Southern Mississippi’s Department of Marine Science grant funding from one of the top supporters of scientific discovery related to the world’s oceans.

The Lenfest Ocean Program, established in 2004 by the Lenfest Foundation and managed by The Pew Charitable Trusts, seeks to protect ocean life through marine science. It develops policy questions related to environmental, economic and social impacts on marine life and identifies, through consultation with scholars and experts, research entities best equipped to conduct research relative to marine policy decisions.

Lenfest is currently providing support for the department’s research on jellyfish. Led by professor and department chairman Dr. Monty Graham, a research team is examining how the marine animal, as major consumers of plankton in some ecosystems, may compete with forage fish for this resource.

Jellyfish populations can grow quickly in response to abundant prey, producing jellyfish “blooms,” another important variable in the research.

“Scientists are increasingly concerned that overfishing may exacerbate naturally occurring jellyfish blooms by increasing plankton availability,” said Graham. “This might tip the balance toward jellyfish dominance, which could have adverse economic and ecological consequences.”

The project explores a variety of metrics to represent jellyfish as an ecosystem indicator in five marine ecosystems: the Gulf of Mexico, the Northern California Current, the Bering Sea, the Peruvian Upwelling and the Sea of Japan. Using existing datasets from these regions, the researchers are modeling the relationships between jellyfish and forage fish, and trying to identify tipping points in the ecosystem.

Forage fish, which includes species like Gulf menhaden and anchovies, play a critical role in coastal regions by directly and indirectly supporting predators and fishing industries. The Lenfest group is focusing on jellyfish-based metrics because it expects the ecological interplay between jellyfish and fish to be amplified in forage fish, as these two groups tend to overlap in space and time and consume the same prey.

Moreover, in the northern Gulf of Mexico, there is some evidence jellyfish-menhaden replacement cycles have occurred in recent decades. Metrics developed by the research team could be as simple as jellyfish biomass, or be a bit more complex, such as the net energy transfer efficiency between primary producers (microscopic plants in the ocean) and a consumer group (jellyfish).

Dr. Kelly Robinson, a post-doctoral associate working with the team, said a food web modeling approach is being used in the project to develop metrics and test their robustness. According to Robinson, food web models, which account for energy flows among numerous ecosystem compartments, will allow the team to examine the role jellyfish and Gulf menhaden play as energy pathways in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

“They (models) will also enable us to evaluate how the northern Gulf will respond to variations in their abundance due to overfishing or climate forcing,” Robinson said. “Maps of jellyfish and Gulf menhaden distributions will provide resource managers a tangible management tool for identifying specific management ‘hot spots’ where jellyfish-fish interactions are most intense.”

Project spawns international collaboration
As the issue of interactions among jellyfish, fish, and fisheries is global in nature, Graham and his team wanted the metrics developed to be applicable to other heavily-fished coastal ecosystems worldwide. In addition to working with experts on the Bering Sea and northern California Current, the group solicited colleagues in Japan, Argentina and Peru to join the Lenfest group.

One collaboration in particular is with researchers at the Instituto del Mar del Perú (IMARPE), the Peruvian government fisheries institute. IMARPE researchers are experts on the Peruvian Upwelling ecosystem, a region famous for the extraordinary levels of biological productivity supporting the world’s largest single-species fishery and its dramatic response to El Niño events.

“It’s a very dynamic and interesting place for oceanographic research,” Robinson said of IMPARPE. “Dr. Graham and I foresee the relationship between USM and IMARPE evolving beyond the Lenfest project into a longer-term collaboration. This partnership will hopefully include research exchanges and student opportunities to engage in research and educational programs.”

Southern Miss Vice Provost of Research Dr. Gordon Cannon will accompany Dr. Graham on an upcoming visit to IMARPE. Both will give talks about Southern Miss research programs as well as meet with the IMARPE Executive Director, Dr. Andres Chipollini, and the scientists with whom the Lenfest group will be working with.

“The Lenfest foundation identifies an area of research they wish to support and then select the people they want to conduct the work based on their prior record of advancement of knowledge in the field, so this is a very prestigious award,” said Dr. Gordon Cannon, vice provost for research at Southern Miss.

“Project solicitation is by invitation only and speaks highly of the awardee's reputation and as well as the standing of their home institution,” Cannon said. “This is the first such award to a Mississippi University and to my knowledge the only one to a Gulf of Mexico institute to support research in the Gulf. We’re very proud of the work by Professor Graham and his research team, and we’re looking forward to the results of this very important study.”

For more information about the Southern Miss Department of Marine Science, online visit www.usm.edu/marine.