Going Mobile

Are dynamic Marine Protected Areas the solution to our rapidly changing ocean ecosystems?

FROM THE SECOND FLOOR of her house in Moss Landing, California, Karin Forney could tell something was different in the ocean. Throughout the winter of 2014, each day she counted numerous small mist clouds shooting up from Monterey Bay, marking where humpback whales breach the surface to expel air from their blowholes. A marine ecologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Forney had moved to Moss Landing to be closer to whales and the other marine mammals she studies. But as the winter moved closer to spring, she was concerned to see whales close to shore so early in the year. It was the same story the following winter, and then again in 2016. “We understood that something was different,” she says. “But we didn’t really understand what.”

“The real new management challenge in this century is developing the new toolset to deal with increased climate variability.”

Forney had her theories. Sixty years ago, North Pacific whales had been decimated by a century of commercial whaling. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, populations have recovered. Going by NOAA’s estimates, Forney has seen humpback whales off the West Coast double since she moved to Moss Landing in 1999. It made sense that more whales might overwinter in Monterey Bay if foraging competition had increased along the coast. But that didn’t fully explain why these whales were suddenly huddled just beyond the surf zone, at a time of year when they were usually absent.

THE ANSWER, IN SHORT, was climate change. In 2013, a marine heatwave formed in the North Pacific. It grew, and grew, until Washington State Climatologist Nicholas Bond called it the “Blob” — a name that stuck as the 1,000-square-mile warm water mass reminded scientists of the mysterious, corrosive entity out of a B horror flick. For three years, the Blob disrupted animal migrations and shifted habitats. The powerful humpback whales weren’t immune to the change. In the warmer water beyond the continental shelf break, whales weren’t finding the krill usually abundant, so they turned their sights on anchovies — closer to shore, closer to human impact.

Humpback whales typically bypass the Dungeness crab fishing season along the California coast, but the habitat shift put them in direct contact with commercial fishing gear. Up the coast in Santa Cruz, Forney’s colleague at NOAA, an oceanographer named Jarrod Santora, began connecting the Blob to a sudden spike in entanglements. In ocean models, Santora could see a narrow band of cool water — the “lifeblood of the ecosystem” — steering whales into a maze of crab pots and slack ropes. In a paper published last January in the journal Nature Communications, Santora, Forney, and coauthors reported that 53 whales had been tangled up in fishing gear along the West Coast in 2015, 55 in 2016. Prior to the Blob, the yearly average was 10.

Mobile marine protected areas could be particularly helpful in areas with major fisheries as they would allow managers to balance entanglement risk to cetaceans with economic factors. Photo by Travis Wise.

Humpback whales typically bypass the Dungeness crab fishing season along the California coast, but the habitat shift associated with The Blob put them in direct contact with commercial fishing gear. Photo courtesy of NOAA News Archive.

“The ocean is in constant flux,” says Santora. “The real new management challenge in this century is developing the new toolset to deal with increased climate variability, these increased predator populations, and their interactions with highly capitalized fisheries.”

In October 2019, the federal government proposed designating over 175,000 square nautical miles in the Pacific Ocean as critical humpback whale habitat. This proposal, which would require that the fishing and shipping industries mitigate their impact on whales in the area, aligns with the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s goal to protect 30 percent of the world’s oceans with marine protected areas, or MPAs, by 2030.

But MPAs have static geographic bounds. How can we protect habitats that shift with rising temperatures? How can we see changes coming, and plan conservation around them?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” says Forney. As a marine ecologist, she knows that the ocean is a dynamic place, full of moving parts. Krill, anchovies, and other forage fish move with upwelling zones, changing temperatures, and current patterns. Whales, turtles, tuna, and other pelagic species follow. A dynamic ocean, Forney says, requires dynamic management.

To put it simply, animals move. Somehow, the boundaries that protect them should move with them.

A 2015 paper in BioScience defines dynamic ocean management as “management that uses near real-time data to guide the spatial distribution of commercial activities.” Larry Crowder, a biologist at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey and an author of that paper, describes it this way: Ocean models can serve like weather forecasts, telling us where species will likely migrate, and allowing us to plan our human activities accordingly.

“Pelagic organisms are highly mobile. They use whole oceans. They feed on oceanographic features that are dynamic,” says Crowder. “All the more reason to take a more dynamic approach. ” Or, to put it simply, animals move. Somehow, the boundaries that protect them should move with them.

IN 1999, CALIFORNIA LAWMAKERS passed the Marine Life Protection Act, establishing a network of MPAs extending the length of the state’s 840-mile coastline. This network would protect identified ocean features, including “rocky reefs, intertidal zones, sandy or soft ocean bottoms, underwater pinnacles, sea mounts, kelp forests, submarine canyons, and seagrass beds.” Today, over 100 MPAs offer varying levels of protection to 852 square miles of state waters. Crowder calls it “one of the most complete and thorough systems of protected areas along any coastline anywhere in the world.”

Though it largely leaves out migratory animals, the Marine Life Protection Act does consider “marine breeding and spawning grounds” as well as “current patterns” and “upwelling zones,” oceanographic features that change with the climate. But how well are these dynamic systems understood, and how could boundaries on a map contain these ever-moving parts?

These were the questions that filled the labs at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the University of California, San Diego, in the late 1990s. “We didn’t have all the answers, but we were trying to point to questions that should be asked,” says Forney, who was a PhD student at the historic, sun-soaked La Jolla campus, where esteemed scientists like Paul Dayton were trying to promote the value of biodiversity even in so-called “unprotected” parts of the ocean. “The escalating loss of marine life is bad enough as an ecological problem. But it constitutes an economic crisis as well,” Dayton co-wrote in 1999. Marine refuges were good. Learning how to fish, transport goods, and support ocean-based economies with fewer impacts on biodiversity would be even better.

In 2000, Forney co-published a paper with Dayton and a fellow doctoral student named David Hyrenbach that many would later consider the flagship paper on the idea of mobile MPAs. While Forney focused on marine mammals, Hyrenbach, currently a professor of oceanography at Hawai’i Pacific University, brought an expertise on seabirds — animals that truly know no human-set boundaries. Arctic terns, for instance, have the longest migration of any other animal on Earth, traveling from pole to pole, roundtrip, each year. Black-footed albatrosses fly from the Hawaiian Islands to forage across the North Pacific. Their migration is dictated by the shifting North Pacific Transition Zone, an oceanic front that serves as a buffet line for pelagic species.

Hyrenbach, Forney, and Dayton’s paper outlined the truth of pelagic species: Their habitats are “neither fixed nor predictable,” and protecting them “will require dynamic MPAs” that move with oceanographic conditions. These mobile MPAs would be especially important in areas that attract economically significant fisheries. In the North Pacific, for instance, albatrosses and turtles are often killed by longlines targeting albacore tuna. Eliminating the fishery wouldn’t be economically feasible, even if it were the best thing for wildlife. Somehow, the authors suggested, dynamic MPAs would have to predict the unpredictable.

“[The paper] was ahead of its time,” says Forney. “We didn’t have the tools or technology, or the ecological understanding of some species, to make it happen.” She knew that mobile MPAs would require extensive wildlife surveys, sophisticated models, the computer capacity to put it all together, and the communicative channels to inform shipping regulators and fisheries managers. These existed only in part in 2000.

THE MOBILE MPA CONCEPT didn’t have to travel far in Forney’s network to be realized. Alistair Hobday — a former Stanford water-polo player — is credited by his colleagues with developing the first mobile MPA off the coast of New South Wales in his native Australia to save critically endangered southern bluefin tuna from longline bycatch.

Hobday, who was Forney’s classmate at Scripps, studies bluefin tuna for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s federal science agency. At eight feet long, these fish are big enough to outfit with fist-sized electronic tags. Hobday was able to see where tuna spent every day of their lives, from breeding areas in the Indian Ocean to their migration through the Great Australian Bight and the Tasman Sea.

In 1997, NASA began compiling information on chlorophyll and sea temperature through a satellite sensor called SeaWiFS, short for Sea-Viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor. Hobday calls this dataset and others like it “breakthroughs” for ocean conservation. Starting then, oceanographers could look at shifting ecosystems on real-time, color-coded maps. Hobday matched these models with his tracking data like “a jigsaw puzzle” to see how tuna move with these shifts. “We had the ocean models for that region, a big enough fish, and data on that fish — all the pieces to make it work,” he says. In 2003, Hobday started sending twice-monthly coordinates to the fisheries managers, who set up regulatory no-fishing zones accordingly.

Other examples soon followed. In 2006, NOAA released the first version of TurtleWatch, a constantly updated map showing the thermal habitat of loggerhead turtles north of Hawai’i. This map was then sent to fisheries managers as a voluntary tool to avoid bycatch in the longline swordfish fishery. In 2015, scientists expanded the tool to include leatherback turtles. Another NOAA project called WhaleWatch uses historic tracking data for endangered blue whales to prevent ship strikes near the Port of Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay. In Delaware Bay, the Atlantic Sturgeon Risk Model matches historic telemetry data with conditions models to make three-day forecasts on the location of the endangered anadromous giants. And last year, Crowder began installing satellite tags on blue marlin and sailfish off the coast of Costa Rica to kickstart a project called DynaMar, which would help fishers prevent reaching bycatch quotas and prematurely shutting down their fisheries.

NOAA’s TurtleWatch — a constantly updated map showing the thermal habitat of loggerhead turtles north of Hawai’i — offers managers a voluntary tool to help avoid bycatch in the longline swordfish fishery. Photo via Pixnio.

Crowder has also worked with NOAA to develop EcoCast, the first multispecies tool that uses machine learning to compile data on the likely locations of blue sharks, leatherback sea turtles, California sea lions, and swordfish in the California Current, which moves southward along the US West Coast. EcoCast gives an updated online map each day, and, according to Heather Welch, a NOAA researcher based in Monterey, these predictions hold up during climate anomalies like the Blob. “Climate change is changing how these species distribute, and not in a predictable way,” she says. “But that’s where a dynamic approach has the upper hand. It’s designed to respond to unpredictable, irregular events like this.”

For Crowder, climate change gives further incentive to put stock on mobile MPAs. You can draw a box around where you find a protected species today, he says, but tomorrow you might find those species north of your box. “In the ocean, things change from day to day,” he says. “The oceans and climate don’t know anything about lines on maps.”

IN 2014, JOHN MELLOR was fishing off the coast of Point Reyes National Seashore when he first noticed effects of the Blob. His 40-foot crab fishing boat High Hopes was bobbing in clear, green water — unusually calm for the time of year — when he saw anchovies gasping for air due to the water’s low oxygen content. He also noticed schools of the fish beached nearby. “I remember looking at my crew and saying, ‘Guys, we’re screwed. This is not good,’” says Mellor.

Mellor has fished the Pacific for four decades. He says that good fishermen know how to recognize small changes in the environment and make business plans accordingly, in real time. But the Blob was a big change and represents what Mellor calls “climate chaos,” which he says has become the new baseline. “Everything’s just changing so much,” he says. “It’s hard to keep up.”

A mobile MPA isn’t a silver bullet, nor is it a way to offer ultimate protection to biodiversity. Rather, it’s a tool that might be used in tandem with other strategies.

In 2018, following a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity demanding clear, science-based solutions to whale entanglements, the state of California agreed to consider “whale distribution models” to make “real-time predictions” on entanglement risk. The state would do this through a program called the Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program, or RAMP, which advises the state on when and where to close the crab fishery. RAMP operates through the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, a coalition of fishermen, conservationists, state officials, and scientists formed in 2015 to create a more whale-friendly fishery.

Mellor is a member of the working group, alongside Forney and Santora, who each provide pieces of the dynamic MPA jigsaw puzzle. Forney collects observation data on humpback whales up and down the California coast. Her surveys are then overlaid with Santora’s oceanographic models, showing upwelling zones, ocean temperatures, and other proxies for where krill and anchovy might be luring whales.

The working group then sends its data to the state on a biweekly basis to inform management decisions. In November 2019, the state delayed the start of crab season out of San Francisco and Monterey Bay due to RAMP-predicted whale presence. The season started in December, when Forney and Santora’s models showed the risk to be low. The season then ended on May 15, 2020, as whales moved northward towards Monterey Bay. “I think RAMP is the best tool in real time to deal with entanglements,” says Mellor, though he admits the early closure stung in a season already disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as a fire at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf in May. “In 2015, if we had a functioning RAMP program, we wouldn’t have had that problem.”

Of course, dynamic management programs like RAMP are based on risk assessment. Unlike no-take marine reserves — or static MPAs with the strongest protection for wildlife — the risk of entanglement or bycatch in an area where fishing occurs will never be brought to zero. In that way, a mobile MPA isn’t a silver bullet, nor is it a way to offer ultimate protection to biodiversity. Rather, it’s a tool that might be used in tandem with other strategies, like smarter fishing gear. “We’re not trying to be anti-fishing. We’re trying to fish in a smarter way,” says Geoff Shester, the California campaign director for the international conservation organization Oceana. “The idea with dynamic ocean management is trying to strike that balance between protecting species when they need it, and then allowing human activity when they don’t.”

However, Shester says that it’s important to clarify when and where dynamic tools should be employed, particularly now as the Trump administration is actively lifting restrictions on commercial fishing in protected areas. One concern among environmentalists is that real-time data tools could be used to give fishermen justification to access more of the ocean’s surface.

“Dynamic ocean management is not intended to supplant static management. It’s intended to complement it,” says Briana Abrahms, a University of Washington biologist who helped develop WhaleWatch at her previous position with NOAA. In other words, large immobile marine reserves will continue to be an important tool for protecting habitats and biodiversity, much as national parks and wilderness areas are on land.

THE WRITER PETER MOORE wrote that a seascape only tells a partial story: “The atmosphere above is visible, but no one knows quite what exists beneath the water: It makes for a half-empirical, half-imagined reality upon which a ship is suspended, like a reader midway through a novel: knowing much, imagining more.” For centuries, scientists have sought to understand the dynamics of the atmosphere above. But now they are turning to the seascape’s invisible half, to more fully make sense of “the ultimate wilderness” — as Hyrenbach, Forney and Dayton called the ocean in 2000 — and to better anticipate how climate change will jostle a playing board of migratory species and dynamic ecosystems.

Karin Forney is continually trying to improve her datasets to facilitate longer-term forecasts about ocean conditions and wildlife migrations. Photo by Bingyao Chen.

“Nature isn’t strictly predictable,” says Forney. “Organisms are imperfect users of their environment.” Photo by Alisa Schulman-Janiger.

According to Crowder, there’s enough momentum to take this work further. Earlier this year, Crowder co-wrote a commentary in Science urging negotiators of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to consider dynamic MPAs in international waters. “In domestic waters, dynamic management is increasingly applied, and this experience can underpin its application on the high seas,” wrote Crowder and his coauthors. (UN negotiators were scheduled to meet in March to discuss amendments to the 1982 treaty, but the pandemic postponed the meeting indefinitely.)

Even so, the science has a long way to go. Forney and Santora are continuously improving their datasets. The goal is longer-term forecasts, beyond “near real-time” predictions. After all, ocean conditions change day to day, but crab gear might take weeks to collect. The current question is: Can wildlife migrations be predicted weeks in advance, and accurately tracked like an approaching weather system?

There are always questions of funding, too, and replicability: Will mobile MPAs work everywhere, say, in developing countries without access to expensive shipboard and aerial surveys? Plus, predictions need to be validated. That means more data collection, more surveys, and more time. “For the large part, we’re at a proof-of-concept stage for some of these predictive tools,” says Welch at NOAA. Like forecasting the weather, sometimes scientists get it wrong.

“Nature isn’t strictly predictable,” says Forney. “Organisms are imperfect users of their environment. You can have a hundred krill patches out there, but whales might only find 30 of them.”

Still, in over 20 years of observing the ocean from Moss Landing, Forney has seen progress in how we understand marine systems, and how we can learn from events like the Blob to better prepare for an uncertain climate future. For now, she’ll keep watching for whales, watching for changes, and trying to detect a signal from the noise.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.