Marine Ecosystems Collaboration Team

Increasing understanding of the structure and function of Arctic marine ecosystems and their role in the climate system and advancing predictive capabilities.

Scope of activities

Action Statement 2019

This team has focused on increasing understanding of the structure and function of Arctic marine ecosystems and their role in the climate system and advancing predictive capabilities. 

Over the next year our main foci will include presenting a new Arctic interconnected, system-level conceptual model, improving integration of observation and modeling communities, and design and facilitation of long-term time series data collections in the marine environment.

We invite both observationalist and modeling scientists, Arctic community members, decisions makers and the next-generation of Arctic scientists and decision makers into our forum to contribute and exchange ideas. 

Team Priorities for 2019/2020

  • A white paper on integration among observational and modeling communities to improve the consideration of biogeochemical components of the earth system. (MST)
  • A new Arctic conceptual model.
  • Roadmap for developing long-term monitoring programs. (EICT, AOSST)
  • Ecosystems update after the field season (SICT, EICT)
  • International connections

Team Description

The Marine Ecosystems Collaboration Team is a new team created as part of Arctic Research Plan 2017-2021, combining elements of the Arctic Research Plan 2013-2017's Distributed Biologcal Observatory Collaboration Team and Chukchi & Beaufort Seas Collaboration Team. The team's scope of activities will include implementation of Research Objectives and Performance Elements listed under Research Goal 4, which is described as follows in the Plan:

In the changing Arctic, improved understanding of marine ecosystem structure and function offers many benefits and is needed to address several IARPC policy drivers. For example, improved ecosystem understanding increases certainty for decision makers charged with environmental stewardship (Stewardship). Understanding also advances current predictive modeling capabilities, which better inform management actions and local communities charged with protecting Arctic marine species and their availability for subsistence hunters (Stewardship, Well-being). Arctic marine ecosystems appear to be in rapid transition due to the dramatic thinning and loss of sea ice over several decades (Stroeve et al. 2012; Post et al. 2013; Renner et al. 2014; Grebmeier and Maslowski 2014). Understanding these changes and their role in the climate system is crucial to improve the understanding of the Arctic marine ecosystems role as a component of planet Earth (Arctic-Global Systems), and cooperation between marine ecosystems researchers and numerous potential collaborators, including northern residents and industry participants, who have particular Local and Indigenous Knowledge of the ecosystems.

Changes in location and timing of seasonal sea ice can have profound and varied effects on pelagic and benthic production, a result of adjusting the transfer of energy from primary producers at the sea surface to the benthos (Bluhm and Gradinger 2008; Moore and Stabeno 2015). A broad ecosystem shift from a benthic- to a pelagic-dominated Arctic marine ecosystem is anticipated at all trophic levels (Grebmeier et al. 2012; Moore et al. 2014), ultimately impacting human communities (Huntington 2009). Marine ecosystems shifts have already begun in the Arctic with observed changes in species distributions of invertebrates (Richman and Lovvorn 2003), fish (Rand and Logerwell 2011), and mammals (Clarke et al. 2013), as well as changes in the size and growth rates of individual animals (von Biela et al. 2011) and the potential for increased gene flow among and between species (Kelly et al.2010).

The loss of sea ice affects the ability of ice-dependent marine mammals to rest, forage, reproduce, and rear young on ice (Laidre et al. 2015, and references therein) and will change their availability to subsistence hunters. Walrus herds hauled out on land in 7 of the last 9 years, i.e., 2007 to 2015 (C. Jay, personal communication) when the ice edge receded beyond the continental shelf during the autumn ice-minimum (Jay et al. 2012). These events have considerable consequences for population trajectory stemming from increased mortality risks on land (Fay and Kelly 1980; Udevitz et al. 2013). Reduced sea ice has also been associated with limited foraging, declining body condition, and reduced reproduction of polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea (Rode et al. 2014), as well as impacts to polar bears’ major prey—ringed seals—which are threatened by diminishing sea ice (Kelly et al. 2010; Sundqvist et al. 2012; Iacozza and Ferguson 2014).

Impacts of sea ice loss on whales and ice-dependent seals are less clear (Moore and Huntington 2008; Silber et al. 2016), as are the effects of these changes on Indigenous communities that depend on predictable access to such species (Metcalf and Robards 2008).

Feedback processes (e.g., bio-physical relationships) play a fundamental role in the functioning of Arctic ecosystems. Many of these processes are nonlinear in nature, making it difficult to conceptualize or quantify them and therefore to contrast their impact against other feedbacks (Wiese et al. 2013).

Some biotic responses will be difficult to link to physical influences as Arctic food webs are characterized by slow turnover times. Nonetheless, large responses are anticipated given the lower resilience and greater sensitivity to perturbations of Arctic ecosystems—as compared with subarctic (Whitehouse et al. 2014).

The Research Objectives under Research Goal 4 summarize the next steps while aiming to integrate environmental information through interdisciplinary research and state-of-the-science modeling approaches. Interagency collaborations are required to address the marine ecosystem Objectives as several agencies have complementary and overlapping jurisdictions and knowledge in the marine realm.


Team leaders

Danielle Dickson
North Pacific Research Board (Website)

Jackie Grebmeier
CBL/UMCES (Website)

Cathy Coon
BOEM- Alaska Region (Website)

Harmony Jade Sugaq Wayner
IARPC Marine Ecosystems Collaboration Team

Performance elements from the Arctic research plan

4.1 Increase knowledge on the distribution and abundance of Arctic marine species across all trophic levels and scales, including an improved understanding of the formation and maintenance of biological hotspots and proximate causes of shifts in range.

  • 4.1.1 Continue distribution and abundance surveys of Arctic marine species, for example, concurrent monitoring of polar bears and their ice seal prey.
  • 4.1.2 Continue studies to document Arctic marine species biodiversity (e.g. Arctic Marine Biodiversity Observation Network—AMBON—and programs that monitor loss of sea ice) and habitat use in the Arctic. Ensure datasets will be available through open access data portals.
  • 4.1.3 Assess winter distributions of key Arctic species, via passive acoustic sampling and satellite tagging for marine mammals to include further development of autonomous, unmanned surface and underwater vehicles equipped with sensors capable of recording marine mammal vocalizations.

4.2 Improve understanding of basic life history of Arctic marine species to support multi-agency decision-making.

  • 4.2.1 Assess feeding ecology of Arctic species and fill seasonal data gaps. One such project will identify walrus prey based on an innovative approach using molecular markers.
  • 4.2.2 Determine basic life history information on age and growth rates of key links in the food web.
  • 4.2.3 Assess the value of recent interdisciplinary programs and synthesis efforts to guide management decisions and allocation of resources.

4.3 Advance the understanding of how climate-related changes, biophysical interactions, and feedbacks at different scales in the marine ecosystems impact Arctic marine resources and human communities that depend on them.

  • 4.3.1 Continue Distributed Biological Observatory (DBO)25 sampling in regions 1-5 and make data publicly available through upload of metadata to the Arctic Data Center/DBO data portal.
  • 4.3.2 Continue DBO coordination activities including annual workshops, via participation in the Pacific Arctic Group (PAG), and produce the first Pacific Arctic Regional Marine Assessment (PARMA) in 2018.
  • 4.3.3 Build connections between DBO and existing community-based observation programs and encourage data sharing. For example, the DBO Implementation Plan discusses fostering connections to existing community-based observation programs in an effort to link offshore observations of biological change to local observations and IK.
  • 4.3.4 Continue research and make simultaneous observations of biological, chemical, and physical variables to examine linkages among marine species, oceanographic and sea ice conditions, and climate change to understand the mechanisms that affect performance and distribution. Quantify feedbacks and interactions of bottom-up and top-down processes that regulate production. Several projects require the integration of IK.
  • 4.3.5 Implement the Regional Action Plan for Southeastern Bering Sea Climate Science and prepare Regional Action Plans for Aleutian Islands and High Arctic Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs)
  • 4.3.6 Conduct numerical simulations using coupled models to evaluate feedbacks across disciplines and systems.
  • 4.3.7 Continue development, testing, and runs of prognostic models that use Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenarios in a regional context to explore current understanding of biophysical interactions and feedbacks, such as perturbations across several modeled food webs from the subarctic to the Arctic to estimate relative ecosystem sensitivities and rates of change.
  • 4.3.8 Monitor and describe temporal changes in anthropogenic and environmental sound in the Alaskan marine Arctic as well as potential implications for ecosystems.


Scientific Achievements

During FY2017 the MECT organized and hosted an international think-tank meeting at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons Island, MD. Some of the most renowned Arctic scientists from six countries met for four days to construct a unifying pan-Arctic perspective of marine ecosystems and related physical considerations. Two peer-reviewed research papers are in preparation and one presentation was given at Arctic Science Summit Week 2017 (ASSW2017). This integrative activity relates to Performance Element 4.2.3 and is a deliverable of the Arctic Science Ministerial held in Washington DC in September 2016. An interagency partnership among NSF, USARC, ONR and BOEM provided the funding to support the 17 participants, moderator, and conceptual artist.

Members of the MECT participated in the annual fall 2016 Pacific Arctic Group (PAG) meeting in China and the spring PAG meeting during ASSW17 in Prague, Czech Republic. These activities are associated with Performance Element 4.4. In addition, updates and results from the international Distributed Biological Observatory (DBO) were presented at both PAG meetings associated with Performance Element 4.3.2. Members of the MECT are planning to participate in the fall 2017 PAG meeting in Seattle, WA, USA.

Collaborations Between Federal Agencies and the Research Community

The MECT hosted monthly webinars during which informal updates were encouraged from all teleconference participants. Formal presenters were invited each month to inform the research community and Federal agencies about current activities that relate to MECT Performance Elements, and on occasion, this interaction resulted in extended collaborations.

During FY2017, the MECT hosted two international presentations and two of its three co-leaders attended and presented papers at an international ASSW2017.

Stakeholder Engagement

Stakeholders are important contributors to several ongoing Arctic research projects that address Research Goal 4. Updates provided by MECT meeting participants and invited speakers have shared information about these projects and issues of concern to stakeholders. One MECT co-lead hosted meetings in the North Slope, Northwest Arctic, and Bering Strait regions of Alaska in 2017 to engage stakeholders in discussion about the Arctic Integrated Ecosystem Research Program ( and provided presentations for several Alaska Native marine mammal co-management organizations, during which she encouraged stakeholder participation in MECT and other IARPC collaboration teams. Individual research programs such as the one mentioned above are incorporating local and traditional knowledge into broader marine research programs. Conversation is ongoing about linking models like the Arctic Marine Pulses conceptual model developed via the Synthesis of Arctic Research and the Alaskan Inuit Food Security Conceptual Framework developed by the Inuit Circumpolar Council to improve understanding of ecosystem connectivity at local to regional and pan-Arctic scales.

Accomplishments from 2019                       

  • The Marine Ecosystems CT cooperated with the Modeling sub-group to host a two-part discussion of improving integration among the observational science and modeling communities to improve ecosystem models that include biogeochemistry. The discussion focused on current capabilities of models and opportunities for observations to contribute to model development and validation. The discussion included program managers from several agencies that fund modeling and the collection of observations and the discussion provided information about needs for future investment. The work plan for FY20 includes continued discussion of this topic.
  • The Marine Ecosystems Collaboration Team has provided a forum for communicating about ongoing research programs (e.g., the Arctic Integrated Ecosystem Research Program,  Marine Arctic Ecosystem Study (MARES), Nansen Legacy, The Impact of Shelf Break Upwelling on Beaufort Shelf Distributions of Zooplankton and Fish) to facilitate collaboration and coordination among them. Many of these programs include Indigenous knowledge holders and Marine Ecosystems CT meetings have included discussion of means to improve engagement with Indigenous communities and stakeholder groups.
  • A presentation on the status of the development of the conceptual pan-arctic model provided a description of the process of choosing the most significant variables, and understanding how these variables connect. 
  • Marine Sound (PE 4.3.8) The MECT held a meeting to discuss underwater sound in relation to Integrated Ecosystem Assessments (IEAs) in the Arctic, such as anthropogenic and animals noises and shipping. This was a follow up to an original discussion in April of 2018. Since then two peer-reviewed papers were published which address acoustic occurrence and behavior of ribbon seals (Histriophoca fasciata) in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, as well as changes in the detections of orcas in the Pacific Arctic.
  • The Marine Ecosystems CT hosted a presentation about the BOEM-funded project Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) that has been documenting the distribution of Arctic marine mammals for decades and recently added capacity to estimate bowhead whale abundance via coordination with Canada. (PE 4.1.1, 4.1.2)
  • A status update on the development of the conceptual pan-arctic model was given during July 2018. It included a description of the process of choosing the most significant variables, and especially on understanding how these variables connect among them. A final presentation will be made in late 2019 or early 2020 included the already presented matrix of interactions and all other elements arranged in a Mandala configuration.

2017 Performance Element Reporting Log

2017 Marine Ecosystems Collaboration Team Annual Report

2018 Performance Element Reporting Log

2018 Marine Ecosystems Collaboration Team Annual Report

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