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New Study May Help Conservation and Development Co-exist in the Ocean

View slideshow A northern elephant seal outfitted with a satellite tag that will allow researchers to track the animal's migrations. Credit: Daniel Costa/UC Santa Cruz cumulativeimpacts02.jpg cumulativeimpacts03.jpg cumulativeimpacts04.jpg cumulativeimpacts05.jpg cumulativeimpacts06.jpg cumulativeimpacts07.jpg cumulativeimpacts08.jpg

 More Information

Cumulative Human Impacts on Marine Predators—study published in Nature Communications, October 28, 2013

Tagging of Pacific Predators, based on Block et. al. 2011

Mapping Cumulative Human Impacts, based on Halpern et. al. 2009

Cloudy With a Chance of Whales—using data to protect whales from ship strikes

Turtle Watch—mapping data that can protect sea turtles from longline fishermen


The ocean off the California coast is one of the richest ecosystems on Earth. Driven by seasonal upwelling that brings nutrient-rich water to the surface, the area teems with wildlife that feeds on the bounty, including many endangered species of whales, sea birds, and sea turtles. The area is also thick with human activity such as oil and gas development, shipping, fishing, and whale watching, and this human footprint is growing. As a result, balancing the trade-offs between conservation and development is becoming an increasingly complicated task.

But a group of scientists led by researchers at University of California Santa Cruz have developed a new approach that will give decision-makers the data they need to strategically balance these trade-offs. Their method was described in a paper published this week in Nature Communications.

"We can come up with solutions that maximize both human uses and conservation," said Elliott Hazen, a NOAA Fisheries marine ecologist who was among the authors of the study.

Putting Data to Work

The key to this development was the synthesis of two already existing datasets into a single, usable product. One of the datasets comes from the Tagging of Pacific Predators project (Block et. al. 2011, see links in sidebar). The TOPP project, as it is known, uses electronic tagging to track the migrations of eight species of top predators in the California Current Ecosystem, including blue and humpback whales, Laysan albatrosses, and leatherback sea turtles.

These species can be harmed when they interact with humans. For instance, endangered leatherback sea turtles are occasionally caught in the gillnets of swordfish fishermen, and endangered blue whales can be injured or killed by ship strikes.

The other dataset maps the location and intensity of human impacts in this region (Halpern et. al. 2009, see links in sidebar). These impacts include local activities such as fishing and shipping as well as broader scale impacts from pollution and climate change.

By overlaying the maps of animal migrations with the maps of human impacts, scientists can identify hotspots where top predator species are most exposed to human impacts. They can also identify areas where little overlap occurs.

"Knowing this will help us untangle human uses from conservation so we can maximize both priorities," Hazen said. Human uses can be intensified in areas that are not crucial habitat—for example, areas with existing oil and gas development might accommodate increased shipping. On the other hand, areas that are important to protected species and relatively pristine could be prioritized for protection.

A Surprising Outcome

One surprising result from this research: many of the overlapped hotspots were concentrated in National Marine Sanctuaries. This outcome, though counter-intuitive, occurs in part because many sanctuaries are close to urban centers, such as the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary just northwest of Los Angeles.

"That presents an opportunity," said Hazen. "Because we already have sanctuaries in place, we have an existing framework that can be used to protect some of these hotspots."

The information that comes out of this research will allow decision-makers to be more strategic when citing areas for industrial activity or protection. "We can come up with solutions that are win-win, where both conservation and development are maximized," Hazen said.

This study is also a win for the taxpayer. By producing a useful product from data that was already bought and paid for, this research increases the return on investment in scientific research.