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Coastal Planning

Marine Species, Ecosystems and Functions Research

Image of invasive Japanese Shore crab found aboard the Japanese tsunami dock" that washed ashore in Agate Beach, Oregon in June 2012.

Photo Credit: Pat Kight, Oregon Sea Grant (2012)

Marine and coastal ecosystems are some of the largest and most diverse systems on earth. Despite the vastness of the ocean, marine organisms interact closely with each other and their environment in complex ways. Marine species serve functions in their habitats and have adapted to the unique physical and chemical conditions of their marine environments, such as differences in tides, temperature, geology, geography, and light availability. Research on marine ecosystems and the species that reside there includes biodiversity and community composition; ecosystem/habitat characteristics; invasive species; larval development, settlement, and recruitment; marine reserves/protected areas; migration; species characteristics and interactions; and species distribution (in alphabetical order):

  • Biodiversity is defined as the variety of organisms in a particular place. It is quantified using species richness (number of different species) and abundance (number of individuals of each species). Preserving biodiversity is often the goal of marine conservation as many studies have indicated that diverse ecosystems are more resilient to environmental change.
  • Community composition refers to the set of species at a site or in an area. Scientists often use community composition data to compare environments with different physical and/or chemical conditions, or to examine changes over time.
  • An ecosystem is defined as a community of organisms that interact with each other and the physical environment. Ecosystems and habitats in the ocean are diverse and complex. Some examples include estuaries, salt marshes, mud flats, open ocean, kelp forests, deep sea, and rocky shores.
  • Invasive species are species that are not native to a particular ecosystem and that cause, or are likely to cause, harm to the environment, other organisms, the economy, or human health. Invasive species introductions typically result from human actions. In marine systems, non-native species are commonly transported by boats and introduced into harbors and other nearshore habitats where, if they reproduce and thrive, they can become invasive.
  • Larval development, settlement, and recruitment are important components of reproduction and population growth for marine organisms. A larva is an intermediate life stage of an organism that looks different from its adult stage. Through larval development and metamorphosis, the larva will change into an adult. Settlement occurs when larvae attach to a permanent substrate before or after metamorphosis. Recruitment occurs when a new individual joins the population as an established member of the community.
  • Marine Reserves (MRs) and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are areas of the coastal ocean set aside for conservation and research. MRs are no-take areas where ocean development, fishing, and any other destructive activities or removal of marine life are prohibited. MPA is a general term for areas with varying levels of protection, from strong to weak. The level of protection depends on the amount of fishing or development allowed within them.
  • Migration is movement of organisms that involves traveling from one habitat to another. This often takes place seasonally, and it is typically associated with different resources being available in different places at different times. For example, in the warmer months, Gray whales migrate north to cold arctic waters to feed on the high volume of zooplankton residing there.
  • Species characteristics include diet, behavior, reproduction, growth, ecological function, range, and other factors that describe an organism. Species interactions focus on the ways organisms interact with each other, such as competing for resources, and finding and consuming other species as food.
  • Species distribution describes the geographical arrangement of an organism, or the locations at which an organism is found. This can be challenging to quantify for some marine species that travel long distances or live in habitats that are difficult for humans to reach and study.

Oregon Research Highlights

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) is conducting research and monitoring on the Marine Reserves (MRs) and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that were established in Oregon in 2012-2016. Specifically, they are monitoring the effects of MPA and MR protections on marine species and habitats over time as well as the characteristics of the coastal communities nearby where people interact with the ocean for livelihoods, recreation, culture, and well-being. Scientists at ODFW have collected baseline data, and they are monitoring trends over time to inform future management of Oregon’s coastal resources. They specifically monitor organism size and abundance, algal community composition, habitat characteristics, and oceanographic conditions. For the human dimensions, scientists are assessing interactions between and effects on communities, ocean users, and regional economies. Each reserve is unique and therefore each area is sampled using different techniques. Researchers also sample comparison areas with imilar characteristics, but with limited or no protections, to pinpoint effects of the MPAs and MRs. Because Oregon’s waters are temperate, with long-lived and slow growing species, it is estimated to take at least 10-15 years to detect any ecological changes due to MR and MPA protections. Click here to learn more about Oregon’s Marine Reserves:


Stevens M.H.H. (2009) Community Composition and Diversity. In: Stevens M.H.H. (eds) A Primer of Ecology with R. Use R!. Springer, New York, NY 

Authored by Amy Ehrhart, Portland State University (2017)