Online atlas provides understanding of marine life and habitats

Researchers have developed New Zealand’s most comprehensive online atlas, providing an overview of nearly 600 marine species.

Researchers have developed New Zealand’s most comprehensive online atlas, providing an overview of nearly 600 marine species, to guide management and conservation of the country’s unique seafloor communities.

The Atlas of Seabed Biodiversity can provide estimates of distribution for demersal fish species like John Dory (Zeus faber), around New Zealand’s coastal marine environment.

Our marine region spans more than 4.2 million km2 of the South Pacific Ocean with a high number of endemic seafloor species, but data gaps and remote areas make it difficult to map and manage the rich diversity of seafloor life.

To fill that knowledge gap, NIWA and the Department of Conservation produced the Atlas of Seabed Biodiversity, a freely available online tool for resource managers, researchers and the public to address the environmental issues faced by subtidal ecosystems.

Other countries already use similar online tools, including Ireland’s Marine Atlas, the Oregon Coastal Atlas, the European Atlas of the Seas and the atlas for marine biodiversity conservation in the Coral Triangle

The New Zealand atlas project was led by ecologists Fabrice Stephenson formerly of NIWA but now at the University of Waikato, Tom Brough from NIWA, and 25 taxonomists and ecologists from around the country.

A screen picture of the Atlas tool showing a species distribution model for John Dory.

Brough said the atlas provides a detailed understanding of hotspots for key marine species, such as those which are threatened or in decline. It can also show areas of “species richness”, the number of species within a defined region.

“It is hoped that the atlas will provide invaluable information for Māori organisations, government agencies and territorial authorities with responsibilities or aspirations for the protection of seafloor ecosystems,” Brough said.

“Knowing where species are distributed is vital for making evidence-based decisions on ocean and coastal management.”

The atlas was created by pooling national data sets on marine life to develop species distribution models, or SDMs, which predict the occurrence of marine life in relation to environmental variables.

SDMs can provide estimates of biodiversity patterns where data are sparse and it is a method widely used in marine spatial planning, impact assessment and customary management.

Distribution of Sea Stars and other subtidal invertebrates can be investigated on the new online atlas tool. [Photo: Malcolm Clark / NIWA] 

The atlas uses SDMs to provide an overview of predictions for 579 species of demersal fish, reef fish, subtidal invertebrates and macroalgae or seaweed.

It is hosted on the DOC Marine Data Portal ( which also features other online maps for habitat classification, hydrology, protected areas and species. People can use it to view information about a particular species or location.

“The SDMs in this database incorporated the best available information on seafloor species at the time of its development,” the project researchers said in a report. 

Modellers have tested the accuracy of the predictions and this information is provided alongside the predicted species distribution models. 

The atlas provides a broad scale indication of where species are likely to occur.

But the models used do not consider seasonal or decadal variation in environmental conditions or the human impact on the environment which may influence biodiversity patterns.

“However, substantial gaps in our knowledge of some taxa and in some areas of Aotearoa New Zealand’s large Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) still exist, and the atlas will be updated when new information becomes available,” project researchers said. 

Surveys of remote areas of the EEZ and areas deeper than 2000m are ongoing and will yield valuable new information on the presence and absence of seafloor taxa that can be used to update the SDMs. 

The next phase of the research will aim to develop models of where species are likely to occur under future climatic conditions, involving taxonomic experts, collection managers and ecological modellers.

Kirstie Knowles, DOC Marine Ecosystems Manager said: “We want to make all this information available for everyone to use - and it will be continually updated with new research, becoming an access point for marine ecosystem data. This should make marine protection decisions more transparent, accessible, and efficient.” 

A blue choral tree at Poor Knights Marine Reserve.

About this project:

This project was funded by NIWA’s Strategic Scientific Investment Fund, Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge, Fisheries New Zealand and the Department of Conservation.

The Aotearoa New Zealand atlas of seafloor biodiversity (Geoportal);