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How to design a seabed habitat monitoring programme

Case Study 2019

How to design a seabed habitat monitoring programme

Environmental monitoring programmes produce evidence against which to evaluate the cause and direction of change in the environment. They must be well-designed and statistically robust to allow conclusions to be drawn from the acquired data; they can then reliably inform which management measures are appropriate, and subsequently determine whether measures have been successful.

One of JNCC’s areas of expertise is in using its understanding of best-practice monitoring methodology to develop monitoring standards in the UK. This both promotes high standards and enables data interoperability.

A JNCC-led review of seabed habitat monitoring and assessments by the UK country nature conservation bodies (CNCBs) identified a clear need for guidance on the design of seabed habitat surveys. The resulting ‘best practice’ guidance combines established ecological theory and protocols with JNCC advice and recommendations. It uses a step-wise framework which makes clear that closely defined objectives, careful planning, appropriate sampling designs and judicious application of statistical analyses are all crucial to ensure that the data acquired are representative and the conclusions drawn are accurate.


Monitoring guidance for marine benthic habitats

This guidance is designed to be used by any organisation or individual undertaking benthic habitats monitoring. It aims to supply everything a user needs to know to develop a monitoring programme for marine benthic habitats which can accurately identify change and answer monitoring questions with a high level of confidence.


It takes the form of a framework of ten key steps:

  • Defining monitoring objectives – the foundation of a successful monitoring programme.
  • Selecting indicators – building and using Conceptual Ecological Models, assessing the attributes of indicators, and testing and validation.
  • Sourcing and assessing existing data – a valuable and highly cost-effective source of information on the variation expected in specific areas or habitats, to provide information to aid sampling design and constitute the initial event/s in a monitoring time-series.
  • Considering temporal limitations – selecting the appropriate monitoring season based on the ecology and life history of the relevant indicator taxa and taking account of seasonal variations.
  • Considering inference, power and significance – how to acquire a statistically robust sample with sufficient power to enable statistical inference and answer monitoring questions with confidence.
  • Selecting sampling units – ensuring that the sampling units provide accurate observations of the indicator/s in question and the size and type of the sampling unit are sufficient for drawing inference about a population.
  • Considering dependency issues – minimising dependence within or between sampling units wherever possible and using statistical techniques to account for it where not.
  • Developing a sampling design – looking at the advantages and limitations of commonly used sampling designs (with specific guidance on sentinel, operational and investigative monitoring designs).
  • Conducting sampling – the acquisition of the monitoring data (outside of the scope of these guidelines since amply covered in other guidance and tools)
  • Conducting data exploration and statistical analysis – an explanation of different analysis options and guidance on when to use them.


Background information and best-practice guidelines are provided for each step of the framework, with a particular focus on sampling design and specific advice for sentinel, operational and investigative monitoring. Key points and recommendations are summarised at the end of each section, with flowcharts to visualise key processes.

The concepts within the guidelines can be broadly applied to marine benthic habitats in any system or geographical location, although it should be noted that the guidance is designed for application at a relatively small scale (e.g. within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) or other discrete survey areas), as opposed to large-scale monitoring of regions.


Links to additional material:

Noble-James, T., Jesus, A. & McBreen, F. 2017. Monitoring guidance for marine benthic habitats. JNCC Report No. 598. JNCC, Peterborough.


Team:  Marine Monitoring & Evidence

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