Marine Biodiversity: What Should We Look at Next?

Marine Biodiversity: What Should We Look at Next?

By: Iris Picat

The Online Masters of Natural Resources (MNR) is a distance learning program taught by a diverse group of sustainability professionals, which encourages students to think of global issues in an interconnected way. With an interdisciplinary conservation background, Dr. Megan Draheim is one such professional who, along with teaching an array of MNR classes, also recently authored an article on the importance of marine biodiversity conservation. The article, published in the journal Conservation Biology this past spring, stresses that our understanding of terrestrial ecosystems far outweighs that of marine ecosystems, and thus identifies seventy-one questions, which if answered, would significantly improve our ability to manage and conserve the latter.

The questions are a product of two workshops in 2011 and 2012 which involved cross-disciplinary and cross-sector contributions that were evaluated and ranked, and in turn placed in a list of priority research questions. These questions were then grouped into 8 categories related to marine conservation – fisheries, climate change, other anthropogenic (human-caused) threats, ecosystems, marine citizenship, societal and cultural considerations, and scientific enterprise. The authors hope that the questions will serve as an effective directive for the establishment and refinement of research programs, and in turn, serve as a good basis for marine ecosystem management.

To gain more insight on Dr. Draheim please read the interview below.

Q. Where does your interest in marine ecosystems stem from, and how did you become involved in these workshops?

A. I grew up in Chicago, so far away from any ocean, but right on the shores of Lake Michigan. My fascination with large bodies of water definitely started there. Once I moved to the east coast it expanded to marine systems as well. While in graduate school, I did some work in the Dominican Republic on marine mammal-tourism with one of my doctoral committee members, Dr. Chris Parsons. Chris is heavily involved with the Marine Section of the Society of Conservation Biology (he’s the past president of the section and current co-chair of their upcoming conference), and was one of the organizers and lead authors of this project, too, so I happily got pulled into the workshops. Although I do a lot of terrestrial-based work, it’s always great to have something marine-related in the mix!

Q. What is something about marine biodiversity that most people don’t know?

A. How much of an impact the terrestrial world has on marine biodiversity and vice versa. Often people see the two as separate, but they’re really connected on so many levels. Even people who live far inland can have a profound effect on marine biodiversity through their choices and behavior — what seafood they eat or don’t eat is an obvious example, but far from the only one. In terms of climate change, our marine systems are facing extraordinary threats between water temperatures warming, ocean acidification, sea level rise, and the myriad other impacts we’re seeing now and will see in the future. Obviously you don’t need to live near a coast to contribute to this problem! And it also goes the other way — so many people rely on healthy marine systems for their livelihoods all over the world that a degradation in these systems can have a ripple effect deep inland as well. For example, if fish become less plentiful for subsistence fishers, we’ve seen cases where they start to hunt terrestrial species out of necessity, which can then have negative impacts on terrestrial biodiversity.

Q. How did you come up with the eight categories into which to sort the questions?

A. It took quite a bit of work and conversation between co-author Julie-Beth McCarthy and I to determine the categories. There were many possible frameworks we could have created, but I think we did a reasonable job of coming up with categories that made sense. Since the main purpose of this paper is to help inform research agendas, we think the categories offer a reasonable road-map to the types of questions we need to explore. I’m especially happy that we ended up with several human-centric categories, as when it comes down to it, conservation is really about managing human behavior!

Q. How do you hope your article (and the 71 questions) will affect management of marine ecosystems in the future?

A. I hope that our paper will be a guide to those who are pursuing marine conservation research so that we can have better informed marine ecosystem management, especially in light of the tremendous challenges facing the conservation field. We ended up with a wide variety of questions across very different types of categories, so I also hope that marine managers and researchers will continue to consider the complexity of these issues. For example, I mentioned I was happy that we ended up with several human-oriented categories; even though a lot of our unknowns do involve the natural sciences, if we don’t take into account the human side of things, our management plans will often face an uphill battle.

Q. What do you think makes Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources (MNR) degree unique?

A. I think the Online MNR and Global MNR formats of the degree, in which I teach, are fantastic. Having all the courses delivered online makes it possible for students from all over the country (and the world) to participate, which increases the diversity of experiences the students bring to the table. I believe that an important part of a graduate degree is learning from fellow students and making those connections, so I think it’s exciting to be able to facilitate those interactions in a way that doesn’t require students to pick up and move to a new place for school — something that’s just not feasible for many people. And the same goes for our faculty, for that matter.


Find the full article Open Access, courtesy of the Society of Conservation Biology, at