Marine Conservation & Sustainable Management, Marine Life, PhD / Graduate School

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. Continue reading “Where the wild things roam: Dispersal, connectivity, marine protected areas, and my PhD project”

Marine Conservation & Sustainable Management, PhD / Graduate School, Science Communication

On being MIA – and what’s next

Hello my fellow readers

You may have noticed that I have been away for some time.  Some of you have even gotten in contact with me to find out why, and encourage me back – thank you!  Your words of kindness and encouragement were very much appreciated.  I honestly did not mean to disappear for so long, but I did get incredibly busy.  I thought I’d share with you all some of the questions I’ve been asked during my time away – and my responses! Continue reading “On being MIA – and what’s next”

Fisheries, Aquaculture, & Sustainable Seafood, Marine Conservation & Sustainable Management

How special is a ‘Special Area of Conservation?


This week it has been brought to my attention that there is a proposal to dredge for scallops inside a ‘Special Area of Conservation’ located in Cardigan Bay, Wales.  This proposal has divided opinions.  On Twitter this week Professor Callum Roberts, a marine conservation biologist at the University of York (UK) lamented that there was ”No hope for UK marine conservation if this mad proposal to scallop dredge in a protected area goes ahead” .  Dr Magnus Johnson, a Crustacean Fisheries and Ecologist researcher at the University of Hull (UK) quickly countered “It is worth reading the science by first!”, following with a couple of hashtags “#eatmorefish #eatmoreshellfish”.  Two scientists, with two opposing views… what is going on?


What is a Special Area of Conservation anyway?

These are something unique to the European Union.  They arise from the Habitats Directive, first adopted in 1992 in response to a European convention called the Berne Convention.  Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) are designed to protect a number of habitats and species (plants and animals) considered endangered, vulnerable, rare, or endemic.  Once a SAC has been formally designated, the establishment and implementation of management measures are largely left down to the individual Member State.  However, there are certain things that they must do.  Briefly, under Article 6 of the Habitats Directive, these include:

Continue reading “How special is a ‘Special Area of Conservation?”

Fisheries, Aquaculture, & Sustainable Seafood, Marine Conservation & Sustainable Management, Science Communication

Oh Canada – what about your ocean?

This is a big post.  It’s about big things.  Important things too.  It deals with Canada – a big country.  Actually by area, it is the second largest country in the world.  It also has a lot of ocean under its jurisdiction.  Take a look at the website of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a Federal government body, and you will see statements like this:

“The Government of Canada is working to ensure the future health of Canada’s oceans and ocean resources by increasing understanding and protection of our oceans; supporting sustainable economic opportunities; and demonstrating international leadership in oceans management”

Sounds good doesn’t it.  The Canadian Federal Government (which has just changed as of yesterday – see bottom of the post) have a several Acts in place to govern the bit of the ocean they have claimed as theirs.  Great stuff!  Except maybe, as demonstrated in a recently published paper, authored by 19 Canadian scientists including lead-author Megan Bailey (Dalhousie University), “over the past decade decision-making at the federal level appears to have undermined the government’s own mandates for the sustainable management of Canada’s oceansContinue reading “Oh Canada – what about your ocean?”

Fisheries, Aquaculture, & Sustainable Seafood

Community-based conservation to rebuild fish stocks

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind being there right now. This is one of the Fijian islands in the Pacific, and the second largest in the group.  As serene as the picture is, not all is serene for the Islanders.  Fishers in Nagigi, a small community based on the south coast of Vanua Levu Island have been noticing that the number of fish and the size of fish have been decreasing, and habitat degrading – a big problem for a community heavily dependent on its marine resources.  This decline isn’t necessarily down to big foreign boats coming in and taking the critters on which they depend.  Instead, overexploitation and habitat destruction seems to arise from the ever-increasing number of locally based fishers.  The source of this claim?  The villagers of Nagigi.

In this paper,  Abigail Golden from Columbia University and fellow researchers explore the idea of setting up a short-term no take marine protected area within Nagigi’s coastal tenure area (known aqoliqoli ).  This idea hasn’t come from the researchers nor from any top-down government as tends to happen in western countries.  Instead the idea has come from the village leaders themselves.  This sort of bottom-up governance is far from unheard of.  The Pacific Islands are small and numerous, and have a long history of small areas of land and coastal waters managed by local communities.  Some have worked well, some have not, and many have come under strain or been lost through both technological developments, increasing population, increasing demands for resources, and cultural change.  Still, a well-managed community based MPA can work well, particularly in these remoter locations, and especially were more rigorous research and recording is absent.  Regardless of where you are in the world, there are a number of vital steps needed for good management.  One involves getting as much information as possible – about the species that are there now, the fishing methods used, an idea of how conditions have changed, and perceptions towards different management methods.  The other involves bringing the local community into the conservation planning in a meaningful way.  So the team went out and conducted two types of surveys – one looking at the species living on the reef at the time, and one talking to some of the villagers themselves. Continue reading “Community-based conservation to rebuild fish stocks”

Fisheries, Aquaculture, & Sustainable Seafood, Marine Conservation & Sustainable Management

Old fishing line hints at fishing levels inside no-take marine protected areas

Dealing with overfishing and destructive fishing practices are a huge issue for marine conservation and management.  Tackling this problem, and trying to repair some of the damage is no easy task.  We know that if they are done properly, no-take marine protected areas can make an impact, not only reducing habitat degradation by removing damaging fishing techniques, but also increasing the density and even the individual size of species targeted by fisheries.   The benefits these no-take zones provide can spill over to fishers too.  And that’s not just a scientist point of view either – take a look at this short (5 minute video) focusing on lobster potter Geoff Huelin who fishes around Lundy Island – the UK’s first no-take zone.

There are many factors that can make or break a no-take zone.  In the video Geoff touches on just one of those factors – policing the zone to make sure that people are abiding by the regulations.  This is important.  It’s no good having regulations to protect an area from fishing if fishing happens there anyway.  It is the action of people – not the designation itself per se, that makes an appreciable difference to marine biodiversity recovery.  Geoff tells us that for the Lundy Island no-take zone enforcement isn’t a huge challenge because the no-take zone is viewable from the shore.  There is, Geoff tells us, usually somebody watching.  But this can’t be said for all no-take zones.  It’s not just distance from the shoreline that can impact on enforcement capabilities. Lundy’s no-take is small.  Some no-take zones are huge, and very often manager’s budgets and resources are limited.  Take the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park for example, which suffers hundreds of infringements of its regulations each year.  Sure both commercial and recreational fishers who break the regulations inside the Park are successfully caught every year using a host of different surveillance techniques, but many more are likely to go unnoticed.  Getting a handle on the scale of non-compliance is the very issue explored in this recent paper by David Williamson from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and fellow researchers.

The research team focused their efforts on several fringing coral reefs in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – those around the Palm Islands, the Whitsundays, and the Keppel Islands. You may have heard of these places.  Beautiful and fairly accessible from the mainland, these areas are popular with tourists and locals alike.  Although all managed by the Park authority, the fringing reefs around these Islands aren’t all no-take, and the Aboriginal people’s of the Palm Island group have fishing and hunting rights across the whole Park – including inside the no-take zones.  The researchers needed a way to estimate fishing effort inside the no-take parts of these reefs, and for this they needed some evidence… evidence in the form of derelict fishing line from hook and line fisheries.  The first thing to do was to calculate the density of derelict fishing line both inside the no-take zones and outside.  So in the water they went and surveyed the derelict line.  Some statistical analysis later, and the team had an estimate of hook and line fishing activity both in and outside no-take zones on the reefs across the three island groups.

In the Whitsundays and the Palm Island, the no-take zones that had been around for over 20 years had the lowest density of fishing line within them compared to zones established 5 years before the surveying, and ‘normal’ sites.  Interestingly no-take zones that had been established for only 5 years didn’t show any significant difference in line density when compared to ‘normal’ sites.  But fishing line is typically made from hardy stuff, and doesn’t easily break down.  The researchers note that 99% of the fishing line found had accumulated algae and sessile organisms on them, and/or become partially embedded in the reef matrix itself.  This indicates that most of the line had been there for months or even years, but ascertaining just how long is difficult.  Some of the line likely was there prior to establishment of the no-take zones but just how much… well that is a difficult question to answer.

The team did not stop with simply working out the density of fishing line though.  Around the Palm Islands the researchers used the assistance of Reef Check Australia – a citizen science organization that is heavily involved in marine monitoring – to remove derelict fishing line from both no-take zones and monitored the sites to see just how quickly fishing line accumulated in the no-take zones and in the areas outside them for some 3 years.  Here the rates of line accumulation between the no-take zones and the other cleaned ‘normal’ sites were, statistically speaking, “marginally non-significant”.  In arguably more real terms, the researchers note that the rate of fishing line that accumulated inside the cleaned no-take zones was 32.4% of that accumulated inside the ‘normal’ cleaned sites. And 32.4%, say they researchers, is worrying for a zone that is supposed to be a no-fishing area.  But what about those Aboriginal fishers that have a right to fish inside the no-take zones – couldn’t some of the line be from them?  Well yes, though the authors note that at least from personal observations not all of the no-take zones they cleaned and monitored were regularly used by Aboriginal fishers.  What all this points to, the researchers argue, is that non-compliance with no-take zones isn’t just an issue in the more remote parts of the Great Barrier Marine Park.  They also note that when assessing how effective a no-take zone is in restoring marine biodiversity, it is worth taking into account the level of non-compliance with regulations as best one can.

This paper (including an open access link to their data) was published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.  You can read it here

Image:  The Whitsundays.  Credit Richard Rydge/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)