A trait-based framework for assessing the vulnerability of marine species to human impacts

Nathalie Butt, Benjamin S. Halpern, Casey C. O'Hara, A. Louise Allcock, Beth Polidoro, Samantha Sherman, Maria Byrne, Charles Birkeland, Ross G. Dwyer, Melanie Frazier, Bradley K. Woodworth, Claudia P. Arango, Michael J. Kingsford, Vinay Udyawer, Pat Hutchings, Elliot Scanes, Emily Jane McClaren, Sara M. Maxwell, Guillermo Diaz-Pulido, Emma DuganBlake Alexander Simmons, Amelia S. Wenger, Christi Linardich, Carissa J. Klein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Marine species and ecosystems are widely affected by anthropogenic stressors, ranging from pollution and fishing to climate change. Comprehensive assessments of how species and ecosystems are impacted by anthropogenic stressors are critical for guiding conservation and management investments. Previous global risk or vulnerability assessments have focused on marine habitats, or on limited taxa or specific regions. However, information about the susceptibility of marine species across a range of taxa to different stressors everywhere is required to predict how marine biodiversity will respond to human pressures. We present a novel framework that uses life-history traits to assess species' vulnerability to a stressor, which we compare across more than 44,000 species from 12 taxonomic groups (classes). Using expert elicitation and literature review, we assessed every combination of each of 42 traits and 22 anthropogenic stressors to calculate each species' or representative species group's sensitivity and adaptive capacity to stressors, and then used these assessments to derive their overall relative vulnerability. The stressors with the greatest potential impact were related to biomass removal (e.g., fisheries), pollution, and climate change. The taxa with the highest vulnerabilities across the range of stressors were mollusks, corals, and echinoderms, while elasmobranchs had the highest vulnerability to fishing-related stressors. Traits likely to confer vulnerability to climate change stressors were related to the presence of calcium carbonate structures, and whether a species exists across the interface of marine, terrestrial, and atmospheric realms. Traits likely to confer vulnerability to pollution stressors were related to planktonic state, organism size, and respiration. Such a replicable, broadly applicable method is useful for informing ocean conservation and management decisions at a range of scales, and the framework is amenable to further testing and improvement. Our framework for assessing the vulnerability of marine species is the first critical step toward generating cumulative human impact maps based on comprehensive assessments of species, rather than habitats.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere3919
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • anthropogenic stressors
  • anthropogenic threats
  • climate change
  • conservation decision-making
  • fishing
  • marine conservation planning
  • ocean
  • pollution
  • trait-based vulnerability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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