How climate change threatens the effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas

- November 27, 2019

Left: A common dolphin taken from the Gully MPA. Right: A field of ‘popcorn coral’ (Primnoa resedaeformis) with some small Paragorgia arborea mixed in. (DFO photos)
Left: A common dolphin taken from the Gully MPA. Right: A field of ‘popcorn coral’ (Primnoa resedaeformis) with some small Paragorgia arborea mixed in. (DFO photos)

Marine Protected Areas (MPA) were created to conserve biodiversity and shield ocean species from potentially harmful human activities, such as fishing, ship traffic and oil and gas exploration.

But the global network of restricted ocean zones is facing a different, more elusive kind of challenge that has yet to be widely factored into their design and management: climate change.

The issue is at the centre of an important new study by researchers from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia who evaluated the extent to which changing ocean conditions are being considered and included in the creation and management of MPAs.

The team, led by Dalhousie University, found that the implementation of such principles has been both slow and difficult to track.

“While many recognize the importance of accounting for climate change in the design and management of marine protected areas, it is impossible to know how well we are positioned for those impacts without a baseline of where we stand,” lead author Derek Tittensor said of the research, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

Data-driven science

Dr. Tittensor is an associate professor in the Department of Biology at Dalhousie and holds the the Jarislowsky research chair in Marine Ecosystem Forecasting. The chair is funded by the Jarislowsky Foundation and the Ocean Frontier Institute.  

Dr. Tittensor says some national parks and other protected areas were created before there was widespread awareness of climate change, and many do not account for changing environmental conditions in a consistent manner. Of particular concern is the fact that the number of Marine Protected Areas that account for climate change impacts cannot actually be measured since there is no centralized database that holds that information.

“The issue of climate change was less on the radar when a lot of these locations were designated. And it’s a hard thing to properly anticipate and account for.”

Developing such a database to track climate adaptation plans in the marine seascape is one of eight recommendations the researchers developed to accelerate the uptake of climate considerations in the global MPA network.

Climate change is sure to influence the effectiveness of protected areas, with species already shifting their habitats and migratory routes as water temperatures warm and food sources relocate. That means MPAs created to protect them may no longer be doing their job as well if the animals alter their locations because of changing ocean conditions.

Important considerations

Dr. Tittensor says managers and policy-makers should consider complimenting traditional Marine Protected Areas with more dynamic features that can respond more rapidly while tracking organisms as they move.

That has been done to an extent in Canada, where Fisheries officials have slowed ship traffic and limited fishing activities in areas where endangered North Atlantic right whales have been spotted.

“Introducing MPA networks that combine fixed and moving protection types will be key to deal with the new dynamics resulting from the climate crisis,” says one of the paper’s co-authors, Maria Beger of the University of Leeds.

“Such an approach can better protect both marine creatures and people depending on the ocean’s productivity.”

Highlighting the gap

The researchers, who analyzed 98 scientific papers on climate change adaptation in MPAs, found that only six of those reported concrete implementation. Of those, only the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in California explicitly considered climate change in its management plan, according to the paper, though there are others which have done so but do not report it in the scientific literature, again highlighting the need for a database to track this.

“Our results highlight a crucial gap between theory and practice,” it states.
The researchers also suggest that climate-smart conservation and management must build capacity and inclusion in regions with limited resources, while bringing stakeholders into the discussion and decision-making process.

“The climate crisis and the biodiversity loss crisis are integrally linked. These new tools provide a means of addressing them together as we develop the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework” says co-author Daniel Dunn of the University of Queensland.


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