Conservationists promote establishment of mobile marine reserves

Conservationists have pitched a new idea that could save endangered marine animals, such as loggerhead and leatherback turtles, albatross, and sharks, from the threat of overfishing: establish mobile marine reserves as a flexible and effective way to protect the species. These protected areas’ boundaries would reflect the animals’ fluid migration patterns, which leave them in different spots in the ocean throughout the year.

The mobile marine reserves would use tracking devices to follow the populations of endangered animals, and would close the areas with the highest populations of the species to trawlers and industrial fishermen during peak seasons.

As ocean conditions change due to climate change-related factors, such as rising temperatures and ocean acidification, marine species migrate to different areas of the ocean. The regions where the species live can change according to ocean currents and climate, such as El Nino, so the boundaries of the marine reserves could be moved when the species migrates.

The proposal for the mobile marine reserves was brought forth at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada, a science festival held earlier this month.

At the AAAS meeting, Prof. Larry Crowder of Stanford University said, “Less than 1% of the ocean is protected at this point, and these marine parks tend to be built around things that sit still like coral reefs and seamounts. But tracking studies show that many, many organisms – fish, marine mammals, sea turtles, seabirds and sharks – respond to oceanographic features that don’t have a fixed point. These features are fronts and eddies that may move seasonally, from summer to winter, and from year to year based on oceanographic climate changes like El Nino or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.”

Current marine reserves are stationary, but since marine animals migrate and ocean conditions change, there is a need to reform this method of marine protection. Marine scientists believe that recent animal tracking data reveals a need for a new marine animal protection system. Tracking devices follow animals over a vast area of oceanic territory, recording their migration patterns as well as their response to different oceanic conditions, such as eddies and the concentration of food in a given area. Since these conditions can change and shift across the ocean, scientists believe that the challenge is to construct reserves that are as dynamic as the species are. However, the improvement of GPS tagging and satellite technology allows researchers and scientists to better understand the behaviors and patterns of several marine species, and would allow conservationists to establish mobile marine reserves.

Prof. Crowder believes that the proposed reserves are realistic. “In addition to knowing where the animals are and how they respond to ocean features, we also know a lot more about where the fishermen are. The fishermen have very precise GPS. So I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility to get fishermen to observe where the edge of a mobile reserve is,” he said.

The mobile reserves would apply to areas where large concentrations of a certain species is present, and would prohibit trawlers and fishermen from entering those areas to harvest fish during the time when the species is most concentrated in those areas. These restrictions would protect endangered species and promote sustainable fishing.

One area that would benefit from the mobile reserves is the Pacific convergence zone, a flexible region where two major currents meet, filling the surrounding area with high concentrations of plankton, fish and turtles. Since the area is located approximately 1,000 miles further north in the summer than it is in the winter, mobile protections would benefit the area and allow the fish to thrive, while GPS tracking of the animals would alert scientists of where the area is.

“People might say the only way to achieve conservation for some marine life is to protect it everywhere in the ocean. But if we know where they move to, we don’t need to close the entire Pacific Ocean, we just need to close this place where they are really concentrated,” Crowder said. “The time is right for this idea. We are scientifically primed to do it.”

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