Designing Marine Protected Areas in a Changing Climate

How can vulnerable marine species be protected when climate change is a reality?

Climate change is throwing a wrench into conservation. In the ocean, water is warming and becoming more acidic. At the poles, sea ice is melting. And across the globe, currents are changing pace or direction.

Combined, the effects of climate change are “putting ocean life through a blender,” says Malin Pinsky, an ecologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “It’s rearranging where the species are, rearranging which species are found together, changing food webs, changing ecosystems.”

Climate change is making the standard method of protecting vulnerable species—closing their critical habitat to destructive human activities such as fishing or oil drilling—much more complicated.

Animals are responding to climate change in a number of ways. Some are adapting physically, while others are changing their reproductive behaviors or migrating, seeking out conditions that suit them. In North America, important food animals such as flounder, hake, and lobster are already on the move. Combined, these changes are cascading through the food web, altering whole ecosystems.

The variety of animal responses is a challenge for Canada, which has committed to designating 10 percent of its territorial waters—about 575,000 square kilometers—as marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2020 in accordance with the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi targets.

Strategies to incorporate climate change into conservation are evolving, but there are some ideas on the table. To some degree, the ideal solution depends on the conservation goals at hand. In the Netherlands, for example, fisheries managers wanting to protect a single species, plaice, created a protected area for juveniles called the plaice box. But the fish moved in response to warming waters, so managers have proposed moving the box to follow them.

For some species, habitats are seasonal or vary from year to year. In such cases, creating a large MPA can offer a buffer, says Will White, a fisheries ecologist at Oregon State University. For example, biologists are beginning to see moving regions of hypoxia (low levels of oxygen) in the water during the summer off the west coast of North America, pushing fish and invertebrates to follow the oxygen. Governments should design MPAs large enough to encompass such shifts, he says.

Read the full article by Erica Gies at