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Climate Change

Adapting marine parks to survive climate change

Protected areas are generally considered to be parcels of land or water where different kinds of human uses are limited to some degree, in order to safeguard the natural resources, cultural sites, recreational benefits, or other values contained within (or even outside of) the area boundaries. Terrestrial protected areas have existed in some form for much of human history; in Europe, productive hunting grounds were reserved and managed for the use of the aristocracy as early as the 11th century, when Norman conquerors designated select animals as “noble” hunts; travel through and use of holy sites in the Himalayas has been limited by many nations, indirectly benefiting numerous montane species; and rural communities in India have been restricting use of “sacred groves”, forested areas believed to house local spirits and deities, for thousands of years.

Teddy Roosevelt, American President at the turn of the last century and patron of the American national parks system, is credited with fostering much of the protected areas movement in the Americas.

The mass protected area movement as we know it, however, didn’t really get started until the late nineteenth century, when nations in North America, Europe, Oceania, and the south of Africa began to address concerns over loss of scenic places, publicly available landscapes, and game species, respectively. Many countries were already designating their own protected areas under varying targets and management strategies when the United Nations endorsed the protection of representative ecosystem types around the world via the Stockholm Declaration in 1972. Now, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature maintains a standardized definition for protected areas, as well as worldwide targets for the amount and type of protected areas needed to achieve international conservation goals. Under the IUCN guidelines, protected areas are “clearly defined geographical spaces, recognized, dedicated, and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” They may include nature reserves, wilderness areas, national parks, monuments, habitat or species management areas, protected landscape or seascape, or areas with sustainable use of natural resources.

Marine protected areas (MPAs), now a mainstream tool for protecting the biodiversity and resource values of our global oceans, are a much newer kind of protected area. Locally managed and usually small marine protected areas have existed since the early 1900s or earlier, but it wasn’t until the 1970s when international collaboration and public support resulted in the creation of the first formal marine biosphere reserves, sanctuaries, and other protected areas.

As the MPA model takes hold and we get closer to meeting international conservation targets in the ocean, scientists are now grappling with some knowledge gaps left in this relatively new approach to managing global ecosystems; what configuration of MPAs best conserves the different marine ecosystems, key fishery species, and species at risk around the world? what about the different management techniques? what total area do we need to achieve various conservation objectives? how should MPAs be planned and managed in relation to nearby terrestrial protected areas?

On top of all of these questions is the compounding effect of global climate change, and that’s what has scientists worried about the future of the global MPA network.

A mangrove ecosystem within the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument (Carolyn Roger, USGS)

Climate change is intimately linked with biodiversity and natural resource loss, with bidirectional feedback processes that threaten our ecosystems with potentially irreversible damage. While climate change is often mentioned in the planning and management strategies for marine protected areas, most MPAs were originally established for the purpose of protecting local biodiversity at the time they were designated, and many do not adequately plan for the ongoing changes that global warming brings. What little climate change planning does exist in these marine parks, similarly to the rise of terrestrial parks over one hundred years ago, is not globally standardized or coordinated between areas.

In November of last year, a collaborative study by Dalhousie, Cambridge, Duke, Queensland, and Manchester Universities as well as number of environmental NGOs reviewed the current state of climate change adaptation in MPAs around the world and made suggestions for managers hoping to better incorporate climate change into their planning and management processes.

Looking at 98 papers focused on climate change and MPA design, they found only six with concrete on-the-ground implementation of climate change adaption techniques. While the researchers acknowledged that a literature review cannot capture all the good climate change adaptation work being done in MPAs outside of the academic world, they did state that only one, the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in California, explicitly considered climate change in its management plan in addition to its original design, including a vulnerability assessment of the sanctuary, specific climate change-related recommendations, and an implementation plan.

We’ve known about climate change for more than 50 years, so why the holdup?

It’s hard to plan for climate change under the traditional protected area model. The earliest protected areas, on land and at sea, were created for the protection of species and features present in or around the area at that time. Increasing global temperature, though, changes everything. Where species live, eat, breed, everything we think we know about our local ecosystems is changing, and at a rate faster than ever experienced in modern history. What happens to a marine park when the features it was originally protected for move out of its boundaries?

The largest marine protected areas around the world (Marine Conservation Institute)

The current state of our climate models makes it difficult for protected areas managers to predict when and how the ecosystems within their jurisdictions will feel the effects of stressors like increasing temperatures, decreasing oxygen levels, and increasing ocean acidification. Being able to predict approximate temperature increases for large areas over long timescales may be useful for nation-wide adaptation planning, but protected areas that are only a few hundred kilometres across struggle with approximations. Furthermore, what we do know may not help us plan effectively. About half of current MPAs are located within areas with relatively stable local thermal trends, in the past and projected future. Does this mean we should prioritize these protected areas over others, because they are less likely to experience the worst effects of climate change? Or, should we prioritize the areas where climate effects will be worst? And, how does the relative value of each unique feature in a protected area affect this assessment? What if the more valuable resource species are all located in the vulnerable areas? Where previous planning strategies have worked with strict geographic and temporal boundaries, managing key species and important features into a future under climate change will require a great deal of flexibility.

Tittensor et. al. outlined a few recommendations for individual MPA managers and international target setters to consider when designing and managing MPAs into the future:

Build a community of practice and a system for tracking whether climate change adaptation has been accounted for in the design and ongoing management of individual MPAs.

We don’t know yet what design principles and ongoing management techniques make individual MPAs resilient against the stressors of climate change. Creating a community where researchers, policy makers, and MPA managers can discuss their experiences, like conferences, governmental panels, or a focused journal or other publication, could help build networks and establish accepted best practices.

Create networks of MPAs that span the range of expected climate stressors.

MPAs work more effectively and achieve their goals more often when planned and managed in tandem with neighbouring MPAs. This is especially important when MPAs are designed to manage wide-ranging or highly mobile species. It is vitally important, therefore, that MPA networks encompass areas expected to experience a wide range of climate effects.

Ensure that climate adaptation objectives are explicitly included in all MPA management plans.

MPA management under climate change will require concrete climate-related objectives. The growth in marine protected areas over the last 30 years happened, in part, because international agreements and working groups set tangible goals for the area of ocean that should be designated as “protected.” The same could be done with climate change adaptation planning in the ocean, by setting a target for number of MPAs around the world that have a climate-relevant management plan.

Design the global MPA network around fully protected “static” areas and supplement them with dynamic climate-responsive tools.

Not all protected areas are permanent fenced off exclusion zones. The Canadian government created temporary fishing closures in 2019 when climate-driven factors combined with changes in prey distribution resulted in the rise of deaths of endangered North Atlantic Right Whales, struck by ships and entangled in fishing fear. Temporary fishery closures like this can be implemented quickly and contribute to long-term protection goals of the MPAs around them. They may only address one issue or species, but dynamic climate responses like this could give policy-makers and MPA managers more options in their toolbox when faced when climate-driven crises in the future.

Develop legislative tools to enable rapid response, mutli-sectoral, and dynamic ocean management options, with biodiversity and climate change-specific objectives.

It’s difficult to get countries working together to align MPA planning and management techniques in an ocean-wide network when the individual nations don’t already have their own biodiversity- and climate change-related legislation. Tools like the Species At Risk Act and National Marine Sanctuary Act are incredibly valuable for getting on-the-ground conservation work done, especially in countries where a democratic system results in a change of government (and potential change in priorities) every few years. Legislation focused on maintenance of biodiversity and with specific climate change adaptation prescriptions would give MPA managers incentive to improve their practices.

Include industry representatives and the public in the design and implementation of climate-smart management practices.

The global oceans are regulated, managed, and stewarded by a dizzying host of both local and international committees, government agencies, and interest groups. Where there is potential for conservation action to negatively affect the groups who depend on business-as-usual activities for their own livelihood, we need to ensure that there are tools in place to minimize harm (or better, incentivize alternative activities that align with biodiversity and climate goals.)

Find the researchers paper at: Tittensor et. al. 2019. Science Advances; 5, vol. 11: eaay9969


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