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Long-term study examines ocean ecosystems off Vineyard

Don Cucchiara/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Plankton are at the center of a long-term study in the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard that seeks a better understanding of how environmental changes are affecting the aquatic food chain.

Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will lead a research team studying the ecosystem on the Northeast US shelf. This part of the Atlantic Ocean, known for its rich fisheries and abundance of marine life, was named a Long Term Ecological Research site, one of only 29, according to the institution.

“These long-term sites have existed since the 1980s,” said Heidi Sosik, senior scientist at the institution and project lead. “They let us understand the ecosystem in ways that short-term studies just can’t. We can see it under all circumstances and compare the data year to year, maybe even decade to decade.”

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Plankton — small and microscopic organisms that drift or float in the sea — serve as the backbone of the entire ecosystem, Sosik said. Everything from fishery production to the well-being of whales and birds depends on having enough plankton, she said.

“We’re going to be watching the population closely. By seeing who eats who and comparing that over time, we can see how healthy the ecosystem is,” Sosik said.

The team will use a variety of technologies to monitor the ecosystem, including two pre-existing ocean observatory sites run by the Oceanographic Institution and the National Science Foundation.

In addition to the sites, the team will deploy “sophisticated sensors” to take constant readings of ocean conditions and plankton levels, then send the data back to the scientists as well as conduct field research from a ship, Sosik said.

The study has been funded for five years with $6 million from the National Science Foundation. After the first five years, the team will present its findings and could be granted a six-year extension of funding, according to Sosik.

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She acknowledged that fishing is a huge industry and that some may be wary that findings could lead to more regulations, but she said she thinks that science that leads to more renewable practices is good for everyone.

“The environment is changing. I know it, and the fishermen know it,” Sosik said. “But by keeping the lines of communication open, we can preserve the environment while still not disrupting business.”

Sosik expressed excitement for the potential of this research.

“If we had these types of studies decades ago, who knows where we might be? What we have here is a really unique and exciting opportunity for the region. I hope it lasts 50 years.”


Andrew Grant can be reached at andrew.grant@globe.com.