From Animal Tracking to Conservation

Hays GC, et al. (2019) Translating Marine Animal Tracking Data into Conservation Policy and Management. Trends Ecol Evol 34(5):459–473. 

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to ride on the back of a whale? The shell of a sea turtle? The fin of a shark? The wing of a seabird? Scientists are now able to vicariously travel alongside these and many other types of marine animals thanks to the development of increasingly small, portable, and advanced devices that they use for tracking.

Ari Friedlaender, one of the authors on the 2019 review paper, tags a pilot whale with a suction cup tag in this photo (U.S. Navy photo by Ari S. Friedlaender via Wikimedia Commons).

Why track animals?

Tracking animals provides fascinating information including where animals spend their time, how they get from one place to another, when they move around, and how they move around. From a purely biological standpoint, the insight provided by animal tracking is invaluable for understanding the complex systems present in the oceans. But these data also have important applications for conservation; without understanding more about animals and the environment, it’s impossible to effectively protect them. For example, how do policymakers decide where to implement a marine protected area without knowing where the animals that need protecting are?

Translating scientific research to conservation policy and management is vital but is also far from simple, as the authors of a new review paper in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution point out. The road from scientific research to conservation policy is not a direct one, even though it may appear that way in scientific literature. Policy and science are often disjointed, and it can be hard to connect all of the moving parts. Nevertheless, Hays and co-authors are optimistic in their review paper, describing conservation success stories and providing recommendations for scientists and policymakers alike.

A green sea turtle with a satellite tag deployed by the US Geological Survey in the Southeast US (USGS via flickr).

Animal tracking data have been used around the world, on local and international scales, and for a variety of species, such as fish, seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals. Tracking data have been used to inform policy decisions like endangered species listings and fisheries management, as well as for the establishment, expansion, and refinement of marine protected areas and other conservation zones. When policymakers have access to tracking data, it allows them to make decisions based on which habitats are important for a species, how much that species moves, and the scale of risks the species is facing. The key point here is that policymakers must have access to the data they need in order for conservation efforts to move forward.

A white shark with a satellite tag attached at the base of the dorsal fin (Phillip Colla via Wikimedia commons).

Lessons for the future

Hays and co-authors’ synthesis of case studies is powerful in its the ability to collate advice for future research and policy based on what has been successful in the past. The first recommendation the authors make for streamlining the use of tracking data in conservation policy is for communication and engagement between the researchers and policymakers early on, so that both groups understand what is needed by the other.

The other two recommendations made by the authors are often heard in general discussions about improving the use of scientific data beyond academic studies: better data accessibility and science communication. Making not just the resulting publication of a study but also the tracking data itself available to interested parties allows a faster and easier connection between scientists and policymakers, and will also continue to become more important for conservation that crosses international boundaries. Finally, expanding the sphere of influence of scientific studies through effective communication increases public awareness. Keeping the public informed about the latest findings in marine conservation keeps management a priority.

Recent advancements in the study of ocean animals are allowing us to make exciting steps towards uncovering what is still mostly unknown about the largest ecosystem on the planet. Not only is tracking animals an exhilarating prospect, but it also allows for effective conservation and management of marine life.

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