Can we protect transient marine species?

How do we look after marine organisms that migrate outside of marine protected areas?
21 March 2023

Interview with 

Kirsten Thompson, University of Exeter


An underwater view of the ocean surface.


The idea of turning 30% of the high seas into MPAs - that’s marine protected areas - is all well and good, but as we heard from Liberty the exact definition of an MPA is not uniform across the planet. And not only that, but it is also important to recognise just how transient many of our most vulnerable species are. The ocean doesn’t stay still, nor does it respect the legal borders that we put up. So how do we continue to conserve organisms that stray out of these MPAs, and is there anything to prevent the more nefarious fishing regimes from just waiting outside the protected zones, or ignoring them completely? Kirsten Thompson, from Exeter University, spoke about how we might protect our more transient species, and what an ideal MPA might look like.

Kirsten - We would hope that the protection would be a strong level of protection. So more like a marine reserve or a 'no take' zone where you can't necessarily do any fishing or you could not extract oil and gas or create lots of noise pollution. So we would hope that this network would give these areas an ability to recover so that those fish stocks can improve. Where they can be safe havens for breeding animals, say sharks, whales, dolphins. We really want those areas to be reserves so that those populations can increase over time because we've actually exploited the oceans already quite significantly. And those areas need time to recover.

Chris - Are the areas contiguous? Because just listening to what you were saying there, if I were, say, a whale shark that spends some of its life off the coast of Western Australia and then it migrates and takes a massive journey almost all the way around the globe going from A to B, if it doesn't remain continuously in a marine protected area, then it's vulnerable when it's not.

Kirsten - So we are really looking at a network of protected areas. So they need to be large enough to support the species that are within these particular areas, but also they need to be connected and well connected so that those migratory species can pass right across the oceans and will have some level of protection throughout their migrations. And that's really important for many of these species that undergo these really long and large scale migrations right across ocean basins.

Chris - I'm minded of research, which it's almost smacks, one Australian researcher put it to me, research into the blinking obvious. But when one looks at the graph of how much land area is apportioned to, say, pandas in China, people are saying, 'look, they've got lots of space to live in, so why are there numbers in decline?' And it took somebody else to then say, 'well let's look at how well connected those bits of land are.' In fact, they're tiny morsels of land with human encroachment separating them all. So the amount of free roaming those animals can do is relatively minimal. And are we not in danger of it looking good from far this 30% of the world's oceans is a good starting point, but if they're not in the right places and joined up in the right way, they're not going to deliver?

Kirsten - Yeah, exactly. It needs to be effective protection and for it to be effective, they need to be well connected and there needs to be a high level of protection within these areas. And of course they need to be designed so that they're in the right place. And so it might take a bit of time and monitoring to see whether when we first put these areas together and draw these lines on the map, we might need to monitor their efficacy over time to make sure that we've got it right.

Chris - Who's going to do that, do you think? And will this come down to individual countries or will there be some kind of overarching organization that will have some kind of ability to give sanction or some teeth if you like, to make sure that this is done appropriately and consistently? Because one of the other things we've seen with other initiatives, especially environmental and conservation initiatives, is if the power's in the wrong hands and there's no way to predate miscreants, then standard slip.

Kirsten - Yeah. And I think that's gonna be key moving forward. And I think those are all the details that I think we'll see being formalized over the next 10 to 20 years. Really, how is this going to work and who's going to enforce these protections? Because these are areas that are quite inaccessible and far out to sea. So that's the detail we really need to get to grips with.

Chris - When scientists are sitting down to say, 'these are the crucial targets we must go for first,' what's at the top of our pecking order?

Kirsten - I don't think that we know enough about the oceans and I think it's difficult to know what species or habitats you would try and protect up the hierarchy, which ones are worth more than the other. I don't think we can really ask that question because to be honest. For a good functioning ecosystem, we need as many as these areas protected as possible. And all at once, we need this to be done quite urgently. So I don't think we could really have some sort of hierarchy or idea of what's most important because to be honest. It's all important.

Chris - You can never do an interview like this without considering the impact of climate change, which is all too obvious in terms of its manifestations around the planet. Has that been taken into account in terms of what we want to protect? Because it's clear that some areas are gonna change dramatically in the next five decades and we may end up conserving what becomes a desert and that's of value to nobody. So are people trying to sort of future proof this by anticipating where climate change is likely to put places under pressure, but may create the next wonderful place to conserve, which isn't at the moment because that's where the animals go when their current home becomes inhospitable.

Kirsten - We are really looking at more of the sort of dynamic approach to protection. So that's going to involve thinking ahead, being responsive to the data that we get back from monitoring and actually making changes in the future if we know that those species need to be protected, be protected in those areas. So it's much more of a dynamic global approach and that's why a network of marine protected areas is gonna be much more valuable to us for protection than just this idea of the static individual MPAs that aren't connected to other places.


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