Tag Archives: Marine Spatial Management

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

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

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

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

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?

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?

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

A practical solution to species range changes detection?

With rapidly warming ocean regions comes changes in marine species distributions.  Understanding and monitoring these changes is important for managing biosecurity threats as well as management of existing and changing living marine resources.  Detecting range changes in the marine environment is difficult and expensive.  For many species, assessment simply has not taken place.  To combat this data gap and assist managers in directing limited research resources, Dr Lucy Robinson, research fellow at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) and colleagues suggest a new method – rapid screening assessment that uses a variety of sources.

Development of the method, which was recently published in Global Environmental Change , focused on waters off the east coast of Tasmania, and area where over the past 50 years warming has been nearly four times greater than the global average.  Using field data from a number of sources, primarily from the citizen science program Redmap Australia, 47 species were assessed for range expansion.  Categorising species based on confidence in their range expansion, 8 species – 6 fish species, a lobster and an octopus species –  were categorised with a ‘‘high’’ confidence of potentially extending their ranges.  These species, the researchers argue, are the ones that should be prioritised for impact assessment, with those falling in the “medium” and “low” confidence categories coming after.

The paper is behind a paywall, but if you have access (or want to buy a copy) you can find it here http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.12.003

Image:  The rainbow cale (Heteroscarus acroptilus) is one of the species assessed in this study.  The assessment had “high” confidence in a potential range extension for this beautiful fish.  This particular beauty is a male in breeding colouration. Credit Richard Ling/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Are marine protected areas protecting the places that need protecting?

Marine protected areas (MPAs).  They sound like a pretty good thing for biodiversity conservation…right?  As always the devil is in the detail.  It first starts with what a MPA actually is.  Well we have already stumbled into slightly tricky ground here, because there is not one single globally recognised definition of MPAs.  For arguments sake we’ll go with the International Union for Conservation of Nature definition:

“A protected area is a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”

Ok… seems pretty straightforward, but look carefully – it’s a little vague isn’t it.  What are these ‘other effective means’ that you can manage the area?  What about the phrase ‘long-term’ – what scale are we talking here?  What do we do if there is conflict between ‘ecosystem services and cultural values’?  The IUCN have categorised MPAs into seven different types, based on the primary management objective of the area.  These range from fully protected areas where no extraction of any kind is allowed, right down to “sustainable use” zones.  If you want full details including the sorts of activities that are allowed in each MPA type, I’d recommend reading the ‘Guidelines for Applying the IUCN Protected Area Management Categories to Marine Protected Areas’.

So to sum up, MPAs differ if how much protection they offer, and some may in reality not offer much more protection than you get in the rest of the ocean anyway.  This might seem a little daft – after all, why bother setting up a MPA if it really isn’t adding any substantial conservation value – to biodiversity of cultural values?  The answer, as it often does, may lie in politics.  There is a wealth of transnational and international agreements set in place through which nation states have agreed to implement MPAs – and with good reason.  MPAs are one of several excellent tools we have through which we can manage our interactions with the ocean, reducing our footprint on it.  The problem comes when nations set MPAs that are meaningless in terms of conservation purely to meet targets.  This includes placing MPAs in areas where even under strict protection, the conservation benefit is minimal.

Rodolphe Devillers of Memorial University of Newfoundland and colleagues in the USA and Australia have recently analysed the motivation behind the placement of MPAs.  The areas of the ocean under the greatest threat are by virtue the areas of the ocean that are most highly utilised – and not just by fishers.  There are a number of human activities that take place in and around the ocean that harm the ocean environment including oil and mineral extraction, and dumping.  Understandably, these are the areas where MPA placement will receive the most resistance.  Conversely, placing MPAs in areas that aren’t really used – and thus not necessarily as threatened as other places – would likely meet less resistance.  Such areas are ‘residual’ to commercial purposes.  The placement of the MPA has little to no impact of stakeholders.  In other words, it’s business as usual.  So which is it?  Are managers going for the path of least resistance, or are they battling to protect the areas which need the most protection?

The researchers assessed this question from a decidedly Australian perspective.  First, the looked at MPAs located across the globe.  They then took a much more regional approach, looking at MPAs within Australian waters.  Finally for a more local look, they assessed the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  What they uncovered was (perhaps unsurprisingly) a little damning for managers.  At both a global and regional scale, MPA placement was largely done following the path of least resistance, placed in the areas where human activities were not so prevalent.  This includes all of these very large MPAs that we see being set up across the world.  Whilst large in scale, different parts of the protected areas allow different activities (known as multiple use).  The areas that are the most restrictive tend to be located in the places where we aren’t busy extracting resources.  But all is not lost.  The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – a multiple use zone – was called ‘exemplary’ by the researchers for its planning and zonation.  Although there were some discrepancies between bioregions (large-scale areas defined by features and processes ) covered by the Park, overall protection was placed at a scale for the area it covered.  It might be worth noting here that the research for this paper and it’s acceptance by the journal for publication occurred before the recent ‘dumping fiasco’ within the park boundaries.

An argument can be made that protecting areas not currently heavily exploited, and thus not as threatened as areas heavily exploited is a form of pro-active management.  Pro-active management is a good thing – and should be encouraged.  Pro-active management means that we aren’t sitting around waiting for an ecosystem to be so severely damaged (sometimes with no chance of recovery) before trying to do something about it.  It may very well be that some of the ‘residual’ MPAs are placed under the goal of pro-active management, but this is not the case for the majority.  Balancing social, political, economic, and ecological needs and concerns is a difficult business.  Invariably in any decision-making process some aspects will come out as ‘more important’ than others, but to consistently ignore the ecological side is, in the long-term, pure folly.  And it is wrong to claim that we as a species are effectively conserving the very resources on which we depend when we are in fact merely paying lip-service.

This open access paper was published in the journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.  This is a very well written paper and unlike some science papers, not overly verbose.  It explains the complexities of ocean management well – very much worth a read.  http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/aqc.2445

Image:  Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, located off the coast of Georgia.  Credit: NOAA