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Scripps Institution Researchers Develop New Approach for Designing Marine Reserves


Study reported in Science could lay the groundwork for efforts around the world

The culmination of hundreds of research dives, scientific analysis, and high-tech mapping software has led to a fundamentally new approach for designing networks of marine reserves. An effort led by researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and reported in the Dec. 6 issue of Science, could become a powerful new method for decision makers charged with developing marine reserves and a forerunner for similar efforts around the world.

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The study was a collaborative effort between Scripps Institution, the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur in La Paz, and the Gulf of California Program of the World Wildlife Fund.

Networks of reserves, areas where species are protected, are recognized as an important instrument for conserving marine wildlife. Theories about the best way to implement such networks, including their optimal locations and sizes, have increased in recent years. However, practical, real-world applications of marine reserves on large scales have been rare.

The report published in Science illustrates the most advanced marine reserve network design to date. A group led by Scripps’s Enric Sala concentrated efforts in the Gulf of California (also called the Sea of Cortés), the biologically rich body of water between mainland Mexico and the Baja Peninsula that is home to about 900 species of fishes and more than 30 species of marine mammals.

Fishing pressures in the Gulf of California have been well publicized, from John Steinbeck in The Log from the Sea of Cortéz to the New York Times, which earlier this year described extensive fishing pressures on this “exhausted” sea.

“The conservation and management of marine ecosystems need to be well designed, instead of simply using political or economic opportunities,” said Sala, a native of Girona, Spain, and deputy director of the Scripps Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. “Nobody would think about doing surgery on the kidney if the trouble is on the heart. Similarly, we cannot place reserves in sites simply where nobody will complain about, because it might be that we are wasting opportunities, time, and resources to protect a place that does not need protection. We need to be strategic, in the same way that we are strategic when we decide to build a new airport or harbor.”

With little information about the gulf’s biodiversity, Sala and his colleagues, including Octavio Aburto-Oropeza (the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur in La Paz), Gustavo Paredes (Scripps Institution), Ivan Parra (the Gulf of California Program of the World Wildlife Fund), Juan Barrera (the Gulf of California Program of the World Wildlife Fund), and Professor Paul Dayton (Scripps Institution), embarked in 1999 to gather key ecological data about the important rocky coastal habitats in the gulf. Hundreds of research dives later, the team was equipped with fundamental information about biodiversity, spawning activities of key species, nurseries for reef fishes, ecological connectivity between habitats, and other important ecological processes.

The researchers entered the information into a computer software program equipped with “optimization algorithms” designed to specify a number of reserves to fulfill predetermined conservation goals out of thousands of possibilities. Using such a mathematical model, the authors note, is vital because ecological processes and critical habitats are not distributed evenly and thus designs must be based on ecological data.

The result was a mapped series of reserves in the gulf that not only met conservation goals, but could be adjusted to avoid societal conflicts with fishing interests.

According to the Science paper: “The most important benefit of this approach is the objectivity it provides to the process of siting marine reserves. Many reserves have thus far been located more on the basis of social factors than on biodiversity needs… The use of explicit socioeconomic variables in addition to biodiversity data is particularly important because in marine systems, where fishing is a major threat, ecological criteria and socioeconomic measures are not independent.”

Moreover, the authors argue that this quantitative approach can be applied to virtually any coastal region. “Portfolios” of solutions, they say, can be adjusted and presented to decision makers who can then evaluate the costs and benefits of different management options within socioeconomic constraints.

“What we have developed is not the final answer—it’s not a characterization of exactly what will happen in the region. It’s a new approach,” said Sala. “Marine reserves help, but it’s dangerous to say that if you create marine reserves the fishery outside will do much, much better. On land, when you create a national park, you preserve an ecosystem and all the species that live in the ecosystem. Nobody created Yellowstone National Park for the purpose of having more bison or more wolves or more bears so that you can keep hunting them outside the park.”

The research is part of a larger effort in cooperation with the World Wildlife Fund, Scripps’s partner in a decade-long collaboration to apply science to practical solutions for the conservation of the world’s imperiled seas. In addition to the World Wildlife Fund, the effort includes cooperation with other nongovernmental organizations and academic institutions to design a network of marine reserves in the Gulf of California and to work with the Mexican government for its implementation. Funding for the research was provided by the Moore Family Foundation, the Tinker Foundation, the Robins Family Foundation, the Gulf of California Program--World Wildlife Fund, N. Roberts, and B. Brummit.

Mario Aguilera | Scripps News
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