Where the wild things roam: Dispersal, connectivity, marine protected areas, and my PhD project


In my last post I mentioned that I am starting a PhD.  I promised to tell you a little more about what my research will be looking at, so here we go!

The project outline

My research comes very broadly defined already – the work’s raison d’être if you like.  Here it is:

“Movement and dispersal connects marine populations, allowing restoration of depleted local populations by immigrants that renew genetic diversity. Although Canada’s Oceans Act prioritizes ‘linking Canada’s network of marine protected areas (MPA)’, connectivity has not weighed significantly in MPA network design in Canada. This study will optimize regional marine connectivity among protected areas in the Atlantic region by determining optimal locations for new MPAs and evaluating how commercially important species would be representative in the entire MPA network. To model species distribution based on larval dispersal, fishery pressure, and climate change, we will use 3-D ocean circulation models. Then, based on metapopulation theory, we will develop novel spatial network algorithms to optimise the number and spatial connectivity between MPAs under current and future scenarios of climate and fishery pressure that may alter larval supply”.

Sounds complex?  Yep, for me too.

Basically the study is saying, if we think about movement of marine animals, particularly larval (baby) ones, where would we put protection in the ocean? With some exceptions, you don’t tend to find all individuals of a species living in one single place.  Instead you will find groups of individuals of the same species – populations – living in different places.  These populations don’t necessarily exist in isolation, with movement of individuals linking populations that are in different parts of the sea.  Sometimes there is a lot of movement, sometimes a little.  Sometimes a population will be connected to lots of others, sometimes to only a few.  Sometimes animals only move when they are of a certain age.

When we are dealing with populations that are connected together, if we lose one or a few of these populations, you could put the whole lot at risk (not enough babies being produced, genetic diversity drops, and a few other things.  I’ll explain why these  are troublesome in a later post). By thinking about where these populations are, and how they are connected, we could improve the survival chances of animal populations – both now and under future climate change (climate change is important because it will alter where different populations are located, and how they will move around).

Whilst this research focuses on marine protected area networks, the work can be applied to all sorts of different management measures, such as those that relate to fisheries, and even thinking about invasive species (e.g. where they are likely to appear, how many could come).  The research will also add to our knowledge about the marine environment and areas of science including (but not limited to) spatial ecology (very broadly, why things are where they are), movement ecology (again very broadly, where things move to, and why), and metapopulation (also very broadly, where individuals or groups of individuals in a population are separated over an area).


The research is part of a larger, Canadian-wide Project

If we want to achieve sustainable use of the ocean, and afford other species some rights and protection, then we can’t do it alone.  Working together is necessary.  What is really nice about this particular piece of research is that is just one piece in a larger puzzle that is the Canadian Healthy Oceans Network.

The Canadian Healthy Oceans Network (CHONe) is a partnership of 15 Canadian universities and several Canadian Federal Government Departments including Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).  Yep – that’s a fair few people!  The overarching aim is to address the need for scientific guidelines for conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity resources. The network projects have two broad but very interlinked themes: (1) Ecosystem characteristics that define the resilience and capacity of Canada’s oceans to recover or respond to management strategies such as Marine protected area networks, closures (e.g. for fishery management), or restoration, and (2) Identification of key stressors (things that “mess” with the environment), including cumulative impacts (e.g. what if we pollute the sea AND the sea gets warmer AND…. ) that alter biodiversity, different natural process, and services (stuff we get from the ocean – like fish to eat).   My project falls under the first theme.  Because this project is closely tied to DFO, there are also scientific deliverables too.  Yep – the science done in this network should directly help Canada take better care of the ocean… hopefully…

Just in case you were thinking there wasn’t enough connectivity surrounding my connectivity project, my particular project is connected at a much smaller level in the overall network.  There is another PhD candidate working on a similar project but for the Pacific coast of Canada.  There is also a Post Doctorate Fellow working on fancy algorithms to help make our models work.   I’ve also secured some scientists from the Federal Government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans on my committee (more on what a committee is and how it works later) from both Atlantic and Pacific Canada, which should hopefully help with ensuring the work is relevant and useful to them.

Image: Canada sits right there at the top, below that white mass (hello Greenland and the Arctic!), and above the United States of America.  Look how much ocean surrounds it!  The rendering was created with Globe Master Android game. For the globe texture, Whole world – land and oceans composite image was used, created by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center (public domain).   Credit Dan Markeye/Flickr. Licence: CC-BY 3.0


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