Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab

Spatial Ecology


The high seas is both a single thing and the sum of many parts.  It is singular because it is connected by both currents and by species.  However, it is also seamounts and hydrothermal vents and gyres, and convergence zones, and fracture zones and the “midnight zone”… and the list goes on.  Even if we zoom out, the ocean still has clear structure: biomes containing biogeographic provinces, provinces that hold ecosystems, persistent features and habitats.  Even down to microscopic scales, turbulence and friction create heterogeneity in the oceans.  So, you might say, the high seas both is and are.

Spatial ecology seeks to understand both personas.  We use species density and distribution models to understand animal (and boat) movement across jurisdictions, and network theory to develop models of how oceanography and migrations connect distant areas of the ocean.  We also use biogeography and seascape ecology to describe the patchiness of the ocean across many scales. 

While these aspects of ecology are just plain interesting in their own right (you’ll have to trust us…), they are also critical to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.  Connectivity is critical to the design of networks of marine protected areas- it is, in fact, the difference between a “network” and a group of individual protected areas.  Biogeographical classifications are the basis for understanding whether such networks appropriately “represent” the variety of a region.  The spatial structure of populations is vital to understanding how fish stocks or a population of protected albatrosses might withstand anthropogenic impacts (like mortality from fishing).

Duke scientists, led by Pat Halpin and Daniel Dunn of the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab (MGEL), have been intimately involved in bringing geospatial information to bear on policy processes in areas beyond national jurisdiction.  Duke has informed consultations or management measures at the United Nations, the International Seabed Authority, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention on Migratory Species, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Regional Fisheries Management Bodies and Regional Seas Organization, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural and Organization (UNESCO) and numerous other intergovernmental organizations. 

Mapping Ecologically or Biologically Significant Areas (EBSAs)

Tracking and predicting the global footprint of oceanic fisheries

The Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean (MiCO) system

A framework for the development of networks of areas closed to deep-sea mining

The Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean System


The Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean (MiCO) consortium is a group of over 50 organization that seeks to fill a major knowledge gap regarding global migratory routes and connected areas for marine mammal, seabird, sea turtle and fish species. Due to their wide-ranging behaviors, migratory species experience a variety of anthropogenic pressures. Combined with conservation strategies that largely fail to consider spatial connectivity over their life cycle, these threats are resulting in declining populations worldwide. 95% of albatross, 87% of assessed migratory shark species, and 63% of assessed sea turtle subpopulations are listed as Near Threatened or Threatened by the IUCN. Similarly, straddling and highly migratory fish stocks experience twice the rate of overfishing (64% of stocks) as those within a single national jurisdiction. Knowledge on migratory connectivity provided by MiCO will be critical in informing conservation efforts of migratory species in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), particularly via the large number of emerging area-based planning efforts.


Deep-sea Environmental Management


Gold, copper, silver, zinc … these and other commercially important metals are abundant in the deep sea and represent an untapped natural resource.  There is intense international interest in three mineral resource types on the seabed: polymetallic nodules, seafloor massive sulfides, and cobalt crusts.  In areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), these resources are the common heritage of humankind under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and extraction of metal-rich deposits from the seabed is governed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA).  The ISA also has responsibility for protection and preservation of the marine environment from mining activities and a duty to prevent serious harm.  The environmental regulations for deep-sea mining in the ABNJ are being written now, making this a critical point for ensuring sound environmental management in advance of any mining activity.  Duke faculty assist the ISA in protection and preservation of the marine environment by providing science-based recommendations that can inform ISA regulations, guidance, and policy.


For four decades, Duke scientist Cindy Van Dover and her lab were among the global leaders in the exploration of the deep sea and the ecology of deep-sea ecosystems. Van Dover is now among the leaders in the emergent field of deep-sea environmental management, offering her expertise to policy makers as regulations for extraction of mineral resources from the seabed and for protection of the marine environment from mining activities are being written.


Best practices in environmental management and the protection or conservation of marine ecosystems involves spatial planning and design of networks of marine protected areas.  Duke scientists Daniel Dunn and Pat Halpin of the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab contribute their geospatial expertise to develop tools for area-based management in the deep sea.



Overview of Duke work on seabed mining regulations


The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) establishes the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and directs the ISA to develop the resources of the deep seabed (the sea floor located beneath the High Seas in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction) for the benefit of the “common heritage of mankind” while also protecting the environment.  Article 145 of UNCLOS explicitly requires the ISA to ensure that mining of the deep seabed does not interfere with the ecological balance of the marine environment.


Duke faculty are closely involved with the ongoing ISA effort to develop regulations that will govern the mining of the deep seabed in a fashion that protects the marine environment.  Faculty are contributing to both the scientific and legal aspects of developing these rules.


Dr. Cindy Van Dover, the Harvey Smith Professor of Biological Oceanography at the Marine Lab, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the ecology and function of sea floor hot springs. She has published widely on the biodiversity of the deep sea, and is a pioneer in the new field of deep-sea environmental management. She participates in ISA-sponsored meetings from Jamaica to Europe to Asia that focus on the UNCLOS requirement to protect the environment of the deep sea in connection with mining, and has provided detailed recommendations for methods to protect particularly important areas of biodiversity and to monitor potential seabed mining impacts.


Steve Roady is Professor of the Practice of Law at the Law School and has been working on ocean conservation legal and policy issues for more than two decades.  He is a member of an ISA working group that is developing information on potential approaches to the allocation of liability for damages from deep sea bed mining. He also is a member of a global team of scientists and legal scholars sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts that is providing commentary and suggestions on the proposed ISA regulations. He is assisting the ISA with consideration of specific provisions in the regulations that will help ensure protection of the marine environment, including provisions for public participation, legally-binding standards and guidelines for seabed mining contractors, and an environmental liability trust fund.

Ocean Governance: How do we govern the largest commons in the world?


Since Hugo Grotius’ 1608 document “Mare Liberum”, legal scholars have debated the rights and responsibilities of nations on the high seas. With the development of new technology and rise of the United Nations, new institutions, treaties, and legal principles have come to shape our use of the world’s waters.  Duke University researchers, lead by Lisa CampbellSteve Roady Daniel Dunn and Patrick Halpin, are asking questions about the legal, social, and political infrastructure that help us manage the world’s largest commons.


A new treaty to protect biodiversity in the high seas

The Human Dimensions of Large MPAs\



Ocean Data


All questions related to the conservation and management of marine species and ecosystems depend on the availability of information and knowledge on the patterns and processes across spatial and temporal scales. The high seas represent the last frontier of ocean knowledge; its scale, distance from land and dynamism make it a particularly challenging system to study. Duke University has been at the forefront of ocean data and observing systems for decades, in addition to hosting nodes of said systems on Duke’s campus, Duke researchers are shaping the conversation on what future ocean databases and warehouses should look like if we are to address the challenges of tomorrow. Below are some examples of the systems that Duke is part of:


Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) SEAMAP
The Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS)


Belt and Road Initiative


The Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the One Belt, One Road initiative is a project announced in 2013 by the Chinese government to connect the Silk Road Economic Belt to the proposed Maritime Silk Road Initiative. China hopes this plan will touch 138 countries and connect China to each of them. It would strengthen hard infrastructure, including ports, pipelines, and railways, and soft infrastructure, including potential trade agreements, within this potentially heavily trafficked route. Understandably, this initiative comes with some potential conflicts. The Belt and Road Initiative has been criticized for damaging local environments. If the Maritime Silk Road Initiative is created, it will have serious impacts on the ocean with the increased traffic. The High Seas are an important part of the belt and road initiative and high seas scientists must start examining potential remedies to upcoming problems.