Marine parks need to move along with the animals they’re protecting

An overhaul of the 1982 UN Law of the Sea is giving us a chance to better conserve ocean species.

arctic terns flying against clouds with person silhouetted against background
A colony of arctic terns in IcelandMelinda Conners, Stony Brook University

When we think of areas set aside to protect species, they tend to be fixed land expanses: national parks, wilderness reserves, and refuges. But such rigid definitions of protected habitat don’t cut it for many creatures swimming in the open seas, inhabiting zones with more fluid boundaries.

That’s why scientists want provisions for mobile marine protected areas—which can shift boundaries or restrictions depending on the movement of aquatic organisms—to be included in the upcoming revamp of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The convention hasn’t been updated since it was implemented in 1982, and marine ecologists like Sara Maxwell of the University of Washington are keen on using the update to bring ocean conservation into the 21st century.

In meetings on the treaty update, Maxwell says that negotiators are still describing marine protected areas as having fixed boundaries. For the most part, that’s how marine conservation has been done to-date.

There are around 100,000 of these fixed marine parks around the globe, ranging from the size of a baseball field to encompassing hundreds of thousands of square miles. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia was once the largest MPA in the world, at 129 million square miles. But in recent years some massive marine areas have superseded it, including the Ross Sea of Antarctica (600,000 square miles) and the Cook Islands in the South Pacific (772,000 square miles). In these zones, sensitive ecological or cultural resources are protected by restricting human activities, but often some commercial use is still allowed (they’re not quite as prohibitive as designated wilderness in the United States).

The problem is, many marine conservation experts think the UN officials are failing to prepare for a less-predictable future climate by maintaining this traditional view of marine protection. “They’re really thinking about it as boundaries that are going to be static, they’re not thinking about it from the perspective of—first of all—climate change, where everything is moving and everything is shifting in ways that we’re having a very hard time predicting,” says Maxwell. On top of that, “a lot of the species that we’re talking about when we think about the high seas are the ones that are really highly mobile.”

arctic tern getting a GPS tag
This arctic tern is getting a GPS tag to track its movement—arctic terns has the longest migration of any species, traveling from Iceland to Antarctica and back every year.Melinda Conners, Stony Brook University

Many sea turtles, whales, and seabirds travel thousands of miles in their migrations. Without dynamic protections that track their movements, these creatures are more vulnerable in their annual journeys. This is especially true of the high seas, the international waters that cover two-thirds of the ocean. Maxwell says that in the high seas, some specific industries—such as the International Maritime Organization, which regulates shipping—have adopted marine protected areas that apply to their activities, but there’s little coordination across interests.

In a paper published Thursday in Science, Maxwell describes her solution: mobile marine protected areas. In this sort of dynamic management, protected areas can shift rapidly to reflect the movement of sensitive species or habitats. For example, if endangered whales appear set to cross a shipping route, those boats could be directed on a detour to avoid collisions with the cetaceans.

The proposal is not as futuristic as it may seem. Right now in Hawaii, NOAA uses a mapping program called TurtleWatch, which projects where loggerhead sea turtles are swimming based on sea surface temperatures. The voluntary program informs the swordfish fishers on where to avoid dropping their lines to keep from reeling in turtles by accident. Off the eastern coast of Australia, officials use data from tagged fish and a computer model to predict where southern bluefin tuna are swimming, reducing the unintended catch of other species (a problem known as bycatch).

The ideal outcome for Maxwell would be for the UN to adopt a guiding role to implementing these mobile protected areas, and rely on a scientists’ input in reviewing them.

“I agree with the concept of mobile MPAs and I certainly think this topic has a place in the discussions on implementing a legally binding instrument to conserve biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction,” says Danielle Smith, a marine policy scientist at the University of Tasmania. She adds that since the approach has been applied in national jurisdictions, it’s theoretically feasible to apply at a global scale. However, it’s also possible to improve the conventional, fixed-boundary MPAs. Smith proposes a network of global MPAs that protect key habitats and migration routes for transient species on the high seas. Also, she says static MPAs need a built-in review process so that boundaries can be adjusted as needed to meet their objectives for protecting species.

albatrosses silhouetted against a sunset sky
Black-footed albatrosses like these fly thousands of miles across the northern Pacific Ocean to forage for foodMelinda Conners, Stony Brook University

“It’s a pretty straightforward argument: habitats in the open-ocean are defined by the characteristics of the water,” says Daniel Dunn, a marine conservation scientist at the University of Queensland. “That water doesn’t stay put, so the border doesn’t stay put.” Ocean biodiversity hotspots can shift by kilometers over days or months, adds Dunn. Still, he thinks mobile protected areas should be implemented carefully to ensure they’re adequately protecting species. “The permanency of MPAs in a specific place conveys many benefits that a mobile MPA would not,” says Dunn. “What would stop certain countries from using MPAs as a rotational harvest mechanism [for fishing] and getting credit for them?” The fixed boundaries of permanent MPAs may not always accurately cover habitats, but their permanent restrictions can provide important protection for sensitive marine life. Dunn worries that replacing fixed MPAs with mobile protected areas might enable accelerated fishing and other rollbacks of environmental protections.

Unsurprisingly, adding regulations to the high seas can be a touchy subject for the industries involved, says Maxwell. But, she adds that such dynamic management policies could benefit all parties involved. For example, if you were interested in protecting blue whales using the old approach, you’d need a large protected area along the entire North American coast. But in a dynamic approach, the protected area would move with the whales, only restricting shipping and fishing when the animals are around. “If you do something that's more of a dynamic approach, you end up with a lot less area and time that individuals are managed,” Maxwell says.

That’s why in some of the projects she’s worked on, Maxwell’s had fishermen on board with applying her approach. “They know more than anybody does,” she says. “Animals don’t stay in one place and that it’s kind of silly to keep [fishers] out of an area where they could be making a living when there’s not even the reason why.”