ARMS-MBON – a New Network For Genetic Monitoring and Early Detection of Non-Indigenous Marine Species

As part of a global initiative originally developed by the Smithsonian Institute, a marine biodiversity observation network (MBON) has deployed more than 130 Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) in the vicinity of marine sanctuaries as well as industrial locations (e.g. ports, and marinas) in Europe and the polar regions. This network is supported by the EU funded ASSEMBLE Plus project, the European Marine Biological Resource Centre (EMBRC), the Interreg program GEANS, and the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management (SwAM). The aim of the network is to monitor changes in hard-bottom habitats on a continental scale, provide data about the impact of climate change and human activities in these environments, and ensure that this information is globally available via the Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS).

ARMS units are stacks of plates that mimic the complex structure of the sea bottom. Acting as hotels for marine species, they are colonised soon after being deployed. After a few months or years, they are collected, and replaced. Using genetic methods, image analysis and visual inspection methods, it is possible to identify the encrusting species (e.g. coral and algae) as well as motile organisms (e.g. crustacea, molluscs) that have made the structure their home. Robust analyses, however rely upon a network of marine taxonomists and bioinformaticians, something that can be provided by the supporting infrastructure networks such as EMBRC.

An Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structure

An Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structure (credit: Joanna Norkko).

“On a single structure in Crete, we were able to identify the presence of fifteen non-indigenous species. We knew that the region was under extreme pressure from maritime traffic from the Red Sea, but were really surprised to see that the number was this high. Genetic monitoring allows alien species to be identified much earlier than by any conventional sampling method”, says Matthias Obst, Associate Professor at the University of Gothenburg and lead author of the recent publication in Frontiers in Marine Science that outlines the initial findings of the network.

The magic of the ARMS network is that each observatory adds a dot to a painting that shows the status of the hard-bottom communities across the regional seas. As our ARMS are continuously replaced, the paintings also change – they turn into a movie showing the dynamics of coastal ecosystems over time. For example, we are able to see how species slowly migrate in response to climate change, or how new species suddenly arrive in Europe from other parts of the world. As such the network can provide valuable services to national and regional authorities who often run monitoring programs in the coastal zone. In Sweden, the national environmental authorities already use data from ARMS located at five observatories along then Swedish West coast to detect non-indigenous species at the earliest possible stage.

From 2021, EMBRC will work to consolidate the ARMS-MBON infrastructure and promote its services to its members as well as to external stakeholders. The service portfolio will include all aspects of setting up and maintaining ARMS observatories, including deployment, sample processing, sequencing, analysis as well as training.

To find out more about the ARMS network or joining EMBRC as a member, please contact Matthias Obst. The Marine Biodiversity Observation Network (MBON) promotes best practices for the observation and application of ocean biodiversity data for societal benefit as part of the Group on Earth Observations.

Global ARMS Program
The European ARMS Programme
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