Using high-tech satellite tagging, marine scientists have begun to map out key thoroughfares and gathering places in the open ocean for fish, turtles, seals, whales, albatrosses and other far-ranging ocean travelers. Armed with that information, some researchers are calling for reserves to protect key intersections in these "highways of the sea."
They provided initial glimpses of their plans Thursday and Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Someday, the open-ocean expressways may become as familiar as the Eastern Australian Current that surfer-dude sea turtles rode in the animated film "Finding Nemo."
"We don't necessarily have names for all of these features yet," said Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Redmond, Wash. But he could imagine a time when scientists would note the reappearance of, say, the "East Kuroshio Gyre Marine Reserve."
Until recently, it hasn't been possible to follow the long-distance swimmers of the marine world through the open, untracked ocean — but now scientists are using satellites to trace animals wearing off-the-shelf locator tags that can cost $4,000 or more each, Norse said.
Researchers at Duke University are developing a global database of marine traffic patterns through a $1.8 million project funded by the Sloan Foundation and the National Oceanographic Partnership Program — called Spatial Ecological Analysis of Megavertebrate Animal Populations, or SEAMAP. The SEAMAP project is part of a wider data-sharing network called the Ocean Biogeographic Information System, which is in turn a component of the International Census of Marine Life. Those patterns are being matched up with data about fishing boat traffic to identify potential conservation hot spots, Duke marine biologist Larry Crowder said.
Some scientists have been resistant to share their data, for fear that it could tip off fishermen or even rival researchers. But Andy Read, a marine mammal expert at Duke who is also involved in the project, said he's generally been able to persuade his fellow marine scientists to participate.
"My perspective is, we'll do better in terms of conservation if everyone has access to the same information," Read saidl.
Fishermen wouldn't necessarily be banned in protected areas, Crowder said: "It might mean that they have to use special measures when they fish there." For example, hooks might have to be set low enough in the water to avoid ensnaring endangered turtles.
Norse said past conservation measures provide ample precedent for setting aside open-ocean reserves under international treaties. It would be up to the United Nations or other international organizations to set up such reserves — and scientists would have to continue to monitor the traffic patterns, since they tend to shift, disappear and reappear as the marine ecology changes.
"On land, if you want to drive somewhere for vacation, you can pull out the map, find the highway to get you there and the natural landmarks along the way," he observed. "But in the ocean, the roads and attractions don't always sit still. It's not just the animals, but the environment itself that moves."