Ecosystem connectivity and area-based planning

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Leads: Pat Halpin of Duke University and Daniel Dunn of University of Queensland

Background

The movement of animals can connect the places they visit in ways that are integral to the healthy functioning of the ecosystem.  Animals may move for a variety of reasons:  in search of food, to avoid predators or harsh seasonal weather, to seek a mate or to bear young in optimal conditions.  Their movement also enables the social interaction amongst members of a species that ensures its continuation from one generation to the next.

To disrupt the ability of a species to move freely throughout its range and complete its life cycle can have dire consequences, not only for the species unable to sustain its population, but to all other species that rely on it for their own wellbeing or survival.  For instance, the accidental introduction of predatory rats to an island where migratory seabirds nest and rear their young can decimate the seabird population, whose own dietary waste is the main nutrient input to the coral reefs around the island; a degraded coral reef is less productive and biodiverse as a consequence. Similarly, land animals reliant on the annual salmon run from the ocean and upstream rivers can be severely affected if a damn or severe pollution was to block the salmon’s passage, with potentially catastrophic impacts on the reproductive success of the salmon and on the plants and animals dependent on the yearly pulse of ocean-derived nutrients.  Marine migratory species in particular, whose range can span entire oceans and cross several international boundaries, are particularly vulnerable to disruption by seemingly small and localised human activities.

The importance of connectivity within and between species, and across ecosystems has long been recognised, but only recently has there been the computational means to process and visualise the growing reams of data on animal movement to enable a synthetic view of how individual species use their habitat throughout the year.  

GOBI partners at Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab (MGEL) and at the University of Queensland are ideally equipped to gather and analyse data on the movements of migratory animals to map the ecological connections that the migrants generate. The resulting information will be used to build the Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean (MiCO) system.  Knowledge from this work will support and ensure more effective area-based management of biodiversity and human activities through the understanding of ecosystem connectivity in the ocean.

Objectives

  • To collate and analyse data on migratory species and migratory routes in areas beyond national jurisdictions.
  • To develop and disseminate area-based planning and network approaches.

Approach

These objectives will be achieved through the following actions:

  • Design and creation of the MiCO system to visualise the movement and habits of marine migratory species.
  • Collation of datasets to populate MiCO through an exhaustive literature review.
  • Refinement of MiCO to produce an online, open-access information resource for scientists, policy and decision makers, and environmental managers.
  • Assessment of the collected outputs from all EBSA regional workshops with particular focus on how existing EBSAs meet the representativity and connectivity network criteria listed in Annex II to CBD COP Decision IX/20, and identify critical gaps in a possible network of protected areas that would meet those criteria.
  • Creation and development of a habitat model for mesoscale pelagic habitats to complement those that already exist for seamounts and cold-water coral habitats.
  • Analysis of all information gathered during this study to inform regional and global patterns of biodiversity, with particular focus on migratory species and their connectivity pathways and networks.
  • Publication of methodologies, results from analyses and their application in peer-reviewed literature, whilst providing continued technical support for the MiCO system.

Results to date

After a herculean effort sifting through the annals of the global scientific literature, as well as engaging with experts and data repositories worldwide, the acquired data on migratory species have been compiled into a bespoke database and online open-access visualisation tool. MiCO has been created to bridge the gap between those generating data or products that describe migratory connectivity and those engaged in marine resource management, conservation, spatial planning and environmental assessment processes.

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MiCO is designed to evolve and expand as more data become available. As of July 2020, the system includes 63 datasets provided by over 50 contributors, representing 415 tracked animals belonging to 83 species. Together with data from over 1000 publications, MiCO has mapped 27 nodes and 17 migratory corridors for 8 species.


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Since migratory animals do not use all of their habitat all of the time, but instead use certain portions of their habitat at predictable periods of their life, it is sensible to identify and protect core areas that are essential to those animals at the right time, and not to impede transit between them. The outputs from this work will go some way to establish when and which areas and corridors of the oceans are of importance, not only for individual migratory species but for the entire assemblage of marine migratory species in an area.

Outputs from MiCO have already been put to good use, having contributed actionable knowledge towards a number of Resolutions of the Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species and Wild Animals (CMS) during its 12th Conference of the Parties (February, 2020), and supporting its Strategic Plan for Migratory Species 2015-2013.

MiCO has gone on to win the Innovation category of The Ocean Awards 2020.

Publications that have emerged from this work include:

  • The Importance of Migratory Connectivity for Global Ocean Policy, by D Dunn and colleagues, in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, September 2019, Vol. 286 Issue 1911 (download).
  • International Consortium Releases Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean (MiCO) System, by S Poulin and colleagues, in ECO Magazine, May 2019 (download).

Application

The design and implementation of representative and connected marine protected areas for the preservation of biodiversity is the ultimate goal of nature conservation, and is a central tenet to the United Nations mandate and its implementing bodies (e.g., UNEP, CBD, CMS). Ensuring the continued wellbeing of animals that use areas too large to be effectively protected in their entirety requires knowledge of when and what areas are most meaningful to those animals for their survival and persistence, and which of those areas are most at risk of disturbance from human activities. Since migratory animals do not use all of their habitat all of the time, but instead use certain portions of their habitat at predictable periods of their life, it is sensible to identify and protect core areas that are essential to those animals, and not to impede transit between them. The outputs from this work will go some way to establish which areas and corridors of the oceans are of importance, not only to individual marine migratory species but to the entire assemblage of marine migratory species. Ensuring the protection of entire networks of migratory species will inherently afford protection to a myriad other species and processes that are covered by the same network.