The biodiversity in the Earth’s oceans is under acute pressure from anthropogenic threats and marine ecosystems already exhibit high rates of biodiversity change. The sheer vastness and inaccessibility of most marine habitats challenge monitoring efforts and the creation of high-resolution, long-term biodiversity datasets necessary to guide policymakers. On top of that, societal support for the protection of marine biodiversity is key for the implementation of bold conservation strategies. However, most marine taxa are not in the public spotlight and remain hidden beneath the ocean surface. The eWHALE project will meet the above challenges, unite researchers, industry partners and the public across Europe, and implement stakeholder-driven marine biodiversity protection by combining environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling with whale watching and citizen science.
The eWHALE project will optimize the eDNA sampling workflow aboard whale watching platforms and research cruises. This is a first step towards unlocking the enormous potential of participatory marine biodiversity monitoring for the generation of datasets with unprecedented spatial, temporal, and taxonomic resolution.
The molecular methods used to detect DNA of marine megafauna and their prey in environmental samples will be optimized and the molecular toolbox will be extended towards the analysis of population structure. Additionally, the generated eDNA datasets will be validated by comparisons with biopsy samples and visual observations.
eDNA sampling will be integrated into a citizen science module aboard whale watching platforms to educate the interested public in these new technologies and disseminate the project findings to a public audience. This will pave the way for future, large-scale eDNA monitoring campaigns and connect eWHALE with conventional biodiversity assessments performed by institutional agencies.
In the near future, eDNA sampling will play a key role for monitoring the entire global biodiversity. eWHALE lays the foundation for such endeavors in the marine realm by generating data for a wide range of marine organisms – particularly marine megafauna and their prey – from environmental samples.
We will utilize cetaceans as flagship taxa for marine conservation to provide a public audience with an easy entry point into the world of marine biodiversity monitoring and raise public awareness for these matters. The engagement of stakeholders such as policy makers, NGOs, and natural resource managers is essential for this project, since their support ensures large-scale, eDNA-based monitoring efforts in the future. These will be crucial for policy makers and authorities to establish effective marine biodiversity protection measures.
By combining forces across Europe, eWHALE bridges the gap between science, industry, and the public, exemplifies a novel strategy for marine biomonitoring, and boosts public support for marine conservation efforts.