Project

ARCIND - Development of ARCtic biological INDicators for the impact assessment of (new) human activities

In order to assess potential impacts and prevent adverse effects of new human, economic activities, a signalling system is needed that provides relevant information for stakeholders to take steps to prevent or reduce impacts. In this project such a system will be developed, using benthic organisms as biological indicators.

Climate change is expected to cause a retreat of ice in the Arctic. This opens opportunities for increased economic activities in this area, such as harbour development, transport, oil and gas exploration. Important areas for western European countries are the Barents Sea and the north-eastern Atlantic. Although ice retreat may open the area for further exploration, conditions are still extreme, with significant risks for accidents. Furthermore, anthropogenic activities may pose a chronic background stress to the surroundings which is currently not existing (Roose et al. 2011). Both accidents and chronic exposure may seriously affect the Arctic environment. Stressors of human activities may be diverse, including chemical stress from oil/gas exploration, sedimentation and pollution from increased shipping and harbouring activities. Chemical stress is relatively well studied in the Arctic (see for instance activities of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP)), although predominantly on pelagic organisms and less on Arctic benthic organisms (Bach et al. 2009, Nahrgang et al. in press). Nevertheless, benthic organisms are very relevant in the Arctic ecosystem because they play a crucial role in nutrient cycles and in food webs. For instance Grey whales feed extensively on benthic amphipods in the Northern Bering sea (Coyle et al. 2007), shellfish are a dominant food source for walruses (Skoglund et al, 2010), and benthic species are an important diet source for bearded seals (Hjelset et al, 1999). Nahrgang et al. (in press) started a pilot, which demonstrated the potential of benthic organisms for monitoring purposes and monitoring systems.

In order to assess potential impacts and prevent adverse effects of new human, economic activities, a signalling system is needed that provides relevant information for stakeholders to take steps to prevent or reduce impacts. In this project such a system will be developed, using benthic organisms as biological indicators.

Objectives

This project aims to develop a signalling system based on biological indicators for the prediction, assessment and reduction of impacts emerging from the increase of economic activities in the Arctic. Here, biological indicators are defined as a biological species which may be affected by human activities at different levels of biological integration, ranging from cellular to population level. We will focus on indicators of chemical stress in benthic coastal areas. As such, this study complements those on the pelagic habitat in Arctic coastal areas (AMAP, Borgå et al. 2002, 2004, 2005a, 2005b, 2010). In this project, bio-indicators will be selected such that the relationships between the effects of human activities and signals in the selected bio-indicator are specific, causal and direct. This enables to back-track effect signals in the bio-indicator to specific human impacts. For instance, local pollution by human activities may be monitored by using local invertebrates at lower trophic levels, avoiding interactions with food web dynamics which may obscure causal dose-response relationships.

The specific objectives of the study are:

  • Inventories of chemical release profiles associated with anticipated economic activities.
  • Linking fate and exposure in benthic environments to these chemical release profiles.
  • Selection of benthic indicator species, including the development of criteria for selection, and validation of the selection using field data.
  • Development of benthic indicators, which together with other existing benthic and/or pelagic indicators are fit for use in a Code of Conduct for sustainable Arctic developments, governance processes or Decision Support Systems (DSS) that can be applied in policy and management of the Arctic region. The development of a Code of Conduct will take place in the parallel KB project “Development of a Code of Conduct for sustainable Arctic developments”. Actual implementation in a DSS is not part of this project, but is covered by providing input to parallel projects by Prof T. Murk.

Hypothesis

Our main hypothesis is that Arctic benthic fauna species can be used as relevant and sensitive indicators for environmental impacts of human activities in the Arctic. The underlying hypotheses are as follows:

  • Arctic ecosystems are characterized by seasonal or permanent ice cover, low temperatures, variable salinities near shore, strong seasonality with a period of no sunlight and variable levels of organic carbon input (Grebmeier and Barry 1991). Polar benthic organisms may be specifically affected by pressures such as (a) physical-chemical disturbances (harbour development), (b) local release of chemicals (oil & gas drilling, fire extinguishing substances), and (c) globally emitted chemicals that have ultimately reached benthic habitats in polar regions. This is due to several factors: (1) the low temperature of the environment resulting in slow growth and relatively longevity of marine organisms under cold conditions (Coyle et al. 2007; Hildebrandt et al. 2011), which means that organisms may be exposed very long, (2) the relative low metabolic rates of benthic Arctic invertebrates (Peck, 2002) which may hamper the metabolism of compounds by the organisms, and (3) the short and highly productive growth season (and extreme seasonality in lipid reserves).
  • Arctic benthic invertebrates may also be more sensitive due to the extreme conditions they live in. Where stress is due to complex chemical mixtures, we hypothesise that identification of human activities leading to the chemical release can be identified using chemical fingerprinting techniques.