Ecosystem connectivity and area-based planning

Lead: Pat Halpin & Daniel Dunn, Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab, Duke University


There are events that allow materials or organisms to move between places and influence populations that are sometimes isolated in space or time. Such events, comparable to linkages or connections, form the basis for the concept of ecological connectivity. Connectivity affects and enables the lives of organisms over spatial and temporal scales that encompass everything from an individual’s behaviour in response to a stimulus to the timing of its transition between life history stages, from the seasonal distribution of its population to the overall range of its species, and from the gradual adaptation of its species to prevailing conditions over generations to its eventual extinction when conditions are no longer surmountable. All along, the individual, its population, species, community, and assemblage is influencing and being influenced by the individuals, populations, communities and assemblages of other species, as well as by its dynamic physical surroundings.

As part of the connected ecosystem network, we humans are collectively affecting the ecosystem and in turn being affected by the reaction of the ecosystem to our activities. Some of our activities may introduce an obstacle in the connectivity pathway of another organism (e.g., the building of a dam preventing salmon reaching their spawning grounds). Others can compromise the exchange of material or organisms across the entire network (e.g., ocean acidification as a result of global warming), which in turn could destabilise the provision of ecosystem services that the network supports and on which we depend. Since we know relatively little about the nature of those connections it is difficult to understand the exact consequences of our actions, yet the evidence for those consequences is slowly becoming apparent. In the absence of such information, it is important to recognise the importance of connectivity and to incorporate its principles to the way we manage our activities.

To address this, the GOBI team at Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Lab are undertaking work to compile and analyse existing data records on the movement and distribution of marine migratory species across the world. Covering more than 200 species of marine mammals, sea turtles, fish and seabirds, the resulting information is being 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.


  • 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.


These objectives will be achieved through the following actions:

  • Design and creation of the MiCO database, in which to store and manipulate data on the movement and habits of marine migratory species.
  • Collation of datasets to populate MiCO through an exhaustive literature review and data mining of existing EBSA descriptions.
  • Further development 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 newly-created database.


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.

Progress to date

The gathering of data on the movement of marine migratory animals is a herculean task, and a team of dedicated researchers has been recruited to sift through the vast annals of global scientific literature to glean such data.  Requests for data to experts and repositories on specific taxa have also been productive.  In the meantime, using data holdings already available for certain taxa, the Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean (MiCO) system has been developed as an interactive data-visualisation tool, requiring bespoke analytical modelling methods and novel ways to present complex information as simply and informatively as possible.  Public launch of the MiCO system is planned for early 2019, with much anticipation from interested stakeholders, such as the CBD, CMS and participants at the Intergovernmental Conference for the creation of an international legally-binding instrument for the protection of biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction under UNCLOS.  A systematic review of information gathered to date by the EBSA process to identify gaps in feature coverage is underway.  Results from this analysis should help focus and optimise the efficacy of future efforts of the EBSA process.