Scientists Tout Need to Make Marine Protected Areas Mobile

(CN) – The ocean is a series of dynamic ecosystems which calls for dynamic measures to protect its marine wildlife.

Waters across the globe have become unseasonably warm and thrown migration patterns and habitats for a loop, as marine life seek a place like home when they’re left to fend off climate change or human activity.

Habitat protection zones established by different countries throughout the globe tend to be static, but marine life and the climate are capricious. Seasonal changes in ocean waters can disperse migratory sea turtles or mating white sharks in the Pacific Ocean, but so can shipping routes or widescale fishing activities.

This Arctic tern has been outfitted with a GPS tag in Iceland to track its movements by satellite. This species has the longest migration in the world, traveling from Iceland to Antarctica and back in a single year. (Credit: Sara Maxwell / University of Washington)

Creating stationary protection zones for marine wildlife is akin to hitting a moving target, which is why a group of researchers want the United Nations to adopt a more flexible approach to establishing protected areas in international waters from industrial fishing, shipping traffic and seismic activity with mobile protection zones.

Their proposals are detailed in an article published Friday in the journal Science, where the researchers ask the U.N. to explore new methods to protect species under the volatility of climate change.

The U.N. will for the first time since 1982 update its Convention of the Law of the Sea. This presents an opportunity to address human activity and climate change, according to the researchers from the University of Washington and several other research institutions.

Typically, marine protected areas (MPAs) are utilized across the globe to protect endangered species, but the researchers argue this is not enough when climate change forces animals out of their natural habitats.

Sara Maxwell, assistant professor at the University of Washington, Bothell, whose research interests include conservation biology and marine predator ecology, says climate change demands new approaches to MPAs and how we utilize technology to track marine life in the ocean.

“In the context of climate change, the way that we have been applying things in the past is not likely to work into the future,” Maxwell said in a statement. “Species will increasingly need protection, and we will need to apply more dynamic and innovative tools to be effective.”

Researchers call for similar techniques used to track sea turtles, sea birds and other marine species’ movements with satellite and GPS technology under the proposal for the mobile MPAs.

The practice is already followed by U.S. fishing boats that voluntarily avoid waters where loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles prefer certain temperatures north of Hawaii. In Australia, commercial fishing boats avoid trawling in international waters where conditions are ideal for the endangered southern bluefin tuna.

“We hope the language in the United Nations treaty could be changed to explicitly include mobile marine protected areas and dynamic management, so that those become options to protect the largest parts of the ocean going forward,” Maxwell said.

An email to Maxwell on the proposal was not immediately answered by press time.

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