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”

Marine Conservation & Sustainable Management

Protecting Kenya’s dolphin habitat

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are pretty nifty tools for marine conservation. You take an area, you give it a designations and (hopefully… but the reality can be quite different) you attach some regulations/legislation to remove harmful activities to whatever it is you are trying to protect inside the MPA and make efforts to rebuild and conserve this spot. The situation of picking an area to designate can become trickier when dealing with ocean wanderers – species that move around a lot, and over great distances. It is safe to say that it is politically unfeasible to designate one area big enough to encompass, for example the movement of sea turtles. Instead, sea turtles may find critical habitat – feeding areas or nesting beaches for instance, covered by an MPA. We can’t protect them everywhere, but we can build a case to protect them where we know they hang out in large numbers. Some species are a little less predictable – or we simply don’t know where their critical areas are. Take southern Kenya’s populations of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) for instance. Apparently these critters are the most abundant of the marine mammals in Kenya’s Kisite-Mpunguti MPA. Abundance does not mean we know much about them though. The species is listed as data deficient on the IUCN Red List. Continue reading “Protecting Kenya’s dolphin habitat”

Marine Conservation & Sustainable Management

No fishing zones for conservation look good on paper, but the reality can be very different

The global implementation of no-take zones, areas in which fishing (both commercial and recreational) is banned, has been a slow process despite scientific recommendations that they are a valuable tool for conservation – and even support fisheries.  The thinking behind no-take zones is simple.  Prevent extraction from a population and that population will increase over time.  There is plenty of evidence showing that no-take zones have higher fish abundance, biomass, and species richness than comparable fished areas, and that the fish inside no-take zones are larger too.  But there is a catch… designating an area ‘no-take’ is, in itself, not enough to ensure protection.  There are all sorts of factors that can influence the ‘success’ of no-take zones, such as placing the area where it they most needed, reducing pollution from external sources, and the level of compliance and/or enforcement.  After all, if people keep fishing inside the no-take zone, it doesn’t really meet the criteria of being no-take.  Inevitably a fished zone will fail to meet expected successes of a no-take. Continue reading “No fishing zones for conservation look good on paper, but the reality can be very different”

Marine Conservation & Sustainable Management

The ocean and its inhabitants aren’t static, so why do we manage them as if they are?

Ocean wildlife spotting tours don’t necessarily run year-round, instead only going out on the water when the primary species of interest is likely to be in the area.  You may go out and see so much wildlife you can barely count, or you may go out and return without seeing anything.  If you are a fisher, you may have a number of different spots you fish from, or you may use a ‘fish finder’ that points you to where they are most likely to be.  If you could see the smaller critters – the zooplankton, the larval stages of larger marine species (including some that eventually become largely sedentary), you would see that they too move.  In the ocean, creatures move.  Some move short distances, some may cross the global ocean.  The ocean itself is highly dynamic – not just over space, but over time.  This variability in turn gives rise to variability in primary production – and this means that the preferred habitat and vital food resources also shift in time and space, giving rise to a patchy distribution of mobile species, like pelagic fishes, zooplankton, and sea turtles.

So, we have an ocean that is dynamic in both time and space.  We have species that are dynamic in abundance and distribution across time and space.  And we have people, using the ocean differently across time and space.  Yet we draw lines in the ocean, managing our use of it as if everything fitted into nice neat little boxes.  People like lines.  Lines denote boundaries, allowing us to categorise and compartmentalise the natural world neatly.  We have our Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) denoting countries territories.  We have marine protected areas that can look after key habitats.  But when dealing with the ocean we can see that the world doesn’t necessarily fit into such neat little boxes.  Management placed in a fixed area can work really well for some things but when dealing with mobile species – and indeed mobile people, we need something else to enhance static spatial management measures.  As outlined in a paper lead by Rebecca Lewison of San Diego State University, a team of researchers from around the globe (including myself) dynamic ocean management could be just what we need.

Continue reading “The ocean and its inhabitants aren’t static, so why do we manage them as if they are?”

Marine Conservation & Sustainable Management

Are we really protecting North Atlantic right whales?

With its common name originating from whalers who, because of their tendency to float on the surface once dead, decided that they were the ‘right whale’ hunt, the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) has had a somewhat difficult past with people.  By 1530s Basque whalers where happily taking these whales (and others too) off Labrador and Newfoundland in the Northeast Atlantic.  By the mid-1600s, shore-based whaling took off down the east coast of the USA.  Between 1634 and 1951, it is estimated that somewhere between 5,500 and 11,000 right whales were killed by hunters.  1935 saw the introduction of the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling – the first protection afforded to these critters but many – but not all – whaling nations (Japan and the then Soviet Union being the exceptions).  Protection was bolsters in 1949 with the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (IWC), which banned signatories from hunting them for commercial purposes.  In the US, they were listed under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1970, and the subsequent Endangered Species Act of 1973.  Canada, who is not a signatory of the IWC, has listed them under their Species At Risk Act (SARA) as Endangered.  Today it is estimated that there are somewhere between 300 – 400 individuals left, and whilst commercial whaling has ceased, they are still under threat primarily from ship strikes or entanglement in shipping gear.

Continue reading “Are we really protecting North Atlantic right whales?”