Quantifying the extent of niche areas in the global fleet of commercial ships: the potential for "super-hot spots" of biofouling.
Niche areas of ships, such as lateral thruster tunnels, sea chests, and propellers, are often hot spots for the accumulation of biofouling organisms, a potential source of aquatic invasive species. Yet, the relative importance of different niche areas is poorly resolved, in terms of both total surface area and the associated biota (i.e., the species of organisms and their abundances). To address this information gap, a method was developed to estimate the extent of various niche areas in the global fleet of 120,252 commercial ships active between 1999 and 2013. The total niche area for these vessels was estimated to be 32,996×103 m2, representing approximately 10% of the total wetted surface area (WSA) available for colonization by biota. Considering the portion of niche areas relative to the total WSA, it was highest for passenger vessels (27%), followed by tugs (25%), and fishing vessels (21%), with niche areas representing a small portion of the WSA for bulk carriers and tankers (7-8%). Examining the different types of niche areas, thruster tunnels had the greatest total extent (10,189×103 m2), representing a disproportionately large contribution (>50%) of the total niche area for passenger vessels and tugs compared to other vessel types. This result, combined with the use and cleaning of thrusters, may render them "super-hot spots" of biofouling. The uneven distribution and extent of niche areas across vessels has implications for transfers of organisms and management strategies to reduce invasions associated with the surfaces of ships.