Doctoral Programme on Marine Ecosystem Health and Conservation
 The MARES Researchers and their Research
Assessing impacts of invasive alien species on ecosystem functioning in the Meditteranean Marine Protection Areas (old topic: MARES_29)
PhD Code: MARES_11_14:
  • Host institute 1: P9 - Klaipeda University
  • Host institute 2: P12 - Pavia University
Research fields:
  • T2 - Understanding biodiversity effects on the functioning of marine ecosystems
  • T3 - Biological Invasions
  • T6 - Habitat loss, urban development, coastal infrastructures and Marine Spatial Planning
  • Sergej Olenin
  • Dario Savini
  • Magda Vincx
Contact Person and email: Sergej Olenin -

Subject description
Adverse impacts of invasive alien species (IAS) resulting from changes in biological, chemical and physical properties of ecosystems are often interpreted as decline in environmental quality or “biological pollution” (sensu Elliott, 2003). Many IAS populations follow a “boom and bust” scenario, in which population size of the invader rise sharply then fall (Reise et al. 2006). During the boom phase an IAS population is reaching a certain “impact threshold”, i.e. such level of abundance and distribution in an invaded area, at which it begins to cause detectable changes in biological, chemical and/or physical properties of a marine ecosystem. The length of the boom phase may be species specific and can vary between geographical areas even for the same IAS; sometimes after a lag phase of many years in which populations remained small and localized. The biological invasion science still lacks a general theory for definition of the impact threshold as well as the species- specific quantitative and experimental measures of IAS impact on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, particularly in marine coastal habitats. Therefore, the proposed study has two objectives:
1) to identify and compare the impact threshold for widely distributed target IAS, which belong to different taxonomic groups (macroalgae, crustaceans, mollusks and fishes);
2) to contribute to the theory of biopollution assessment by developing quantitative methods for measurement of IAS impacts on marine biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Implementation plan and quality of the research environment
The project will be implemented in four phases under consortium of three MARES partners: Klaipeda University (home institution), University of Pavia (mobility partner 1) and Ghent University (mobility partner 2).
Phase 1 –Theoretical work (Months 1-6), Klaipeda University. Getting knowledge on marine biological invasions and impact assessment; acquiring practical skills in using Bioinvasion Impact Assessment software (BINPAS, 2010) and quantitative analysis of underwater video materials; elaboration of general theoretical and experimental design of the work. Expected costs: accommodation 1800-1900 euro (incl. 150-200 euro for a 1-2 room apartment); laboratory and office space 250-300 euro.
Phase 2 – Field work (Months 7-12), University of Pavia. In Pavia: detailed preparation for the field work (library, zoological and botanical collections, photographs, maps, equipment). The field study will be performed in a Mediterranean Marine Protected Area - a remote and relatively pristine island (Isola di Linosa, Sicily), which is nearly free of any anthropogenic impact and direct introduction vectors, but still exposed to strong propagule pressure of alien species resulting from their secondary spread from other regions. Content of the field work: a) quantitatively assess abundance and distribution of target IAS in different coastal habitats, using ROV and SCUBA diving methods; b) collect samples for stable isotope analysis for trophic level calculations; c) perform exclusion experiments to evaluate IAS impacts on local communities, habitats and ecosystem functioning. Facilities available on site: SCUBA diving, including sampling assistance by professional scientific divers and local fishermen; a hard keel inflatable boat; small field laboratory (microscopes, underwater video, PC, taxonomic guides); board and lodging. Expected costs: 6000-8000 euro.
Phase 3 – Laboratory work (Months 13-18), Ghent University. Stomach content analysis of fish (microscoping) and stable isotope analysis of food content of IAS. Facilities: Well equipped laboratories for microscopic analysis of small invertebrates and stomach contents; Expertise in Biodiversity and Ecosystem functioning of marine invertebrates (nematodes; copepods; polychaetes; Molluscs; Mysids and fish); expertise in food web analysis through means of stable isotopes and biomarkers; online library on BDEF. Expected costs: accommodation 3000 euro; stable isotope analysis 2500 euro.
Phase 4 – Analytical work and finalization of thesis (Months 19-36). Klaipeda University. Statistical analysis of field and laboratory data, identification and modeling impact thresholds, interpretation of the results; writing research papers and the doctorate thesis. He/she will present the results at local doctorate student seminars, at international bioinvasion conferences and at MARES meetings. Facilities: local doctorate school in Marine Ecology and Environmental Studies providing dynamic and friendly research atmosphere; expertise in biostatistics and quantitative underwater video analysis; theoretical knowledge in bioinvasion impact assessment; computing and library facilities. Expected costs: accommodation 5400-5800 euro; laboratory and office space 1500-1800 euro; travel (Klaipeda-Pavia-Ghent-Klaipeda), conferences incl. fees, annual MARES meetings 5000-6000 euro

Originality and innovativeness of the project.
The experimental design will be framed under the concept of Biopollution Level Assessment (Olenin et al., 2007) in order to “feed” it with experimental quantitative data and contribute to development of Good Environmental Status indicators in relation to IAS under the European Marine Framework Strategy Directive (Olenin et al. 2010). Major effort will be dedicated to the establishment of the “threshold of IAS impact”, an innovative tool enabling comparison of taxonomically distant invasive taxa. Studies of IAS impacts will be performed in MPAs boundaries, which so far was very rarely done not only in the Mediterranean region, but in other European seas.
Connection with ongoing EU projects. Study outputs will provide important additional information to current research projects dealing with marine biodiversity and IAS such as: VECTORS - Vectors of Change in Oceans and Seas Marine Life, Impact on Economic Sectors (FP7-OCEAN-2010); BELgian Science Policy project – EnSIS project : Ecosystem sensitivity to invasive species (2009-2011); UGent Research Project 2011-2016 : Understanding Biodiversity Effects on the Functioning of Marine Benthic Ecosystems.
Societal impact. On the European scale, the study should contribute to the ongoing process of incorporation of IAS impacts (biopollution) into environmental quality assessment under EU directives (Water Framework Directive - 2000/60/EC; Marine Strategy Framework Directive – 2008/56/EC). At the local scale, the research outputs will provide MPA managers with a protocol for identifying IAS threat and help decision making processes. Candidate field work activity will also involve participation to and establishment of “people science education” programs (target: scuba divers, snorkelers, fisherman) for assessing IAS distribution in the study area, under the framework of the participatory monitoring programs run by the non- profit association FOR-MARE (www.for-

Elliott, M. 2003. Biological pollutants and biological pollution – an increasing cause for concern. Marine Pollution Bulletin 46, 275-280
Olenin S., Minchin D., Daunys D. 2007. Assessment of biopollution in aquatic ecosystems. Marine pollution bulletin, 55 (7-9), 2007, 379-394
Olenin S., Alemany F., A. Cardoso C., Gollasch S., Goulletquer P., Lehtiniemi M., McCollin T., Minchin D., Miossec L., Occhipinti Ambrogi A., Ojaveer H., Jensen K.R., Stankiewicz M., Wallentinus I. & Aleksandrov B. 2010. Marine Strategy Framework Directive - Task Group 2 Report. Non-indigenous species. EUR 24342 EN. ISBN 978-92-79-15655-7. ISSN 1018-5593. DOI 10.2788/87092. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities. 44 pp
Reise, K., Olenin, S. & Thieltges, D.W. 2006. Are aliens threatening European aquatic coastal ecosystems? Helgoland Marine Research, 60(2), 106 – 112.

Expected outcomes
Two research papers with provisional titles:
1) Bioinvasion impact assessment in a Mediterranean Marine Protected Area: a comparative cross-taxon analysis;
2) Identifying species specific bioinvasion impact threshold: theory and method
*The protocol for assessment of the IAS impact treshold.
*People science education outreach (visualisation of IAS impact) - e.g. for SCUBA divers, tourists. Involvment of local fishermen into the people science education

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