Published March 5, 2009 08:43 AM

Parks that can move when the animals do

When scientist Dee Boersma first arrived to Punta Tombo, Argentina, in the early 1980s, the colony of Magellanic penguins there was 300,000 breeding pairs strong. Since then, they’ve declined by more than 20 percent. Dr. Boersma faults competition from fishermen, pollution in the form of oil dumped at sea, and climate change for the decline.

But while the Punta Tombo colony is shrinking, others farther north are growing. The penguins’ shifting range underscores how climate change isn’t always a drop-dead-from-the-heat affair. And it raises questions about how to protect threatened – and mobile – marine species as they adjust.


Changing weather patterns have shifted upwelling currents, the productive areas that support large anchovy schools, northward. On average, Punta Tombo penguins must now swim 25 miles farther for a meal – 50 miles total – compared with a decade ago. Some penguins have simply established new colonies closer to their food source, welcome evidence of their ability to adapt.

But the move also worries Boersma: At Punta Tombo, the penguins are protected. In their new colonies farther north, on private land, they’re not.
The aquatic birds’ exodus from a safe haven highlights a quandary presented by a changing world: How do people, with their landlubber bias, protect and manage marine ecosystems that, by definition, go with the flow?

“We set aside parts of the world as if it’s going to be static,” says Boersma, at the University of Washington, Seattle. “But the one thing that’s constant is change.”

So far, few – and maybe none – of the more than 4,500 marine protected areas (MPAs) established worldwide have been explicitly designed to cope with climate change and the issues exemplified by the Magellanic penguins, say experts. Getting protected areas drawn on a map is hard enough, they note. Establishing one that moves or adjusts with changing conditions – a roving MPA – will be harder still.

But some are already thinking about how to design MPAs that still function as climates change. Maybe they’re bigger, say scientists, or spaced like stepping stones so species can hopscotch to higher latitudes. Perhaps they’re not tied to a geographic location at all, but follow conditions scientists know are important.

New technologies for tracking marine species and people, and more sensors to monitor conditions at sea now make what was once impossible at least theoretically possible. Questions of governance and human bureaucracy are the greater challenge, scientists say.

“It’s really sort of a fundamental challenge to how we’ve been doing conservation until now,” says Emily Pidgeon, lead adviser for Conservation International’s Marine Climate Change Program in Arlington, Va. “But it’s not a completely hopeless story. This requires us to change ideas and go to Version 2.0. But we can do that.”

As human impact on the world’s oceans has become more readily apparent, scientists have pushed harder for the creation of marine protected areas. Ecosystems that are allowed to function relatively unperturbed will be a kind of insurance policy against species extinction and ecosystem collapse, the thinking goes.

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