Landscape and habitats - different approaches to classification

Classification of the marine environment can be approached in a number of ways and at a variety of levels of detail, depending on the purpose of the classification, the methods used and the data available. For environmental management purposes, it is important to classify the marine environment in an ecologically meaningful manner in order to support an ecosystem-based approach to management.
For the seabed, classification has typically been achieved through characterisation of seabed features by habitat type. This approach to classification is reflected in various national and European schemes (see What classification schemes are available?).
The habitat approach to classification takes only limited account of broader patterns in seabed character, such as seabed morphology determined by major geological and hydrographic processes. Thus, features such as seamounts and estuaries can be considered to occur at a scale above the habitat scale; each comprises a suite of habitat types in a more topographically-defined feature – at this level of classification, the features are described as marine landscape types and can be considered to be broadly equivalent to mountains, valleys, plains and rivers in the terrestrial environment. Each marine landscape type will comprise a series of habitat types, some of which are typical of (or specific to) the landscape type; additionally they may occur in a particular pattern (such as a zonation of habitats from the top of a seamount to the bottom). In addition, many habitat types can occur in several landscape types (for example, seagrass beds can occur in sealochs, bays and estuaries) – this means that the two approaches to classification are related to each other but cannot be fully integrated into a single hierarchical classification (Connor et al., 2006). UKSeaMap Final Report shows the relationship between habitats and landscapes. The following figure of the Exe Estuary, UK illustrates the habitat and landscape relationship.
GMHM1-13 Exe Marine Landscapes.png
A map of Exe Estuary, UK illustrating relationship between the marine landscape and habitat scales of classification
Whilst the habitat approach is most suited to detailed (fine-scale) classification of the seabed (including field surveying and habitat mapping), the broader classification of marine landscapes is particularly useful for wider management purposes, as management is often most easily applied at this scale (e.g. for a whole estuary), rather than a component habitat.
Given the topographic emphasis of the marine landscape concept, its application to the water column is less valid, as topographic distinctions cannot be applied to the water column. Nevertheless, the pelagic environment can be classified using hydrographic characteristics (such as temperature and salinity) in a way which is ecologically relevant. The outputs probably best equate to the habitat concept, albeit at a very coarse scale.
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