Animal movement and community engagement: a toolkit for marine conservation

According to a United Nations report produced in 2019, the world is at risk of losing up to 1 million of the estimated 8 million plant and animal species on earth [1]. Extinction is a natural phenomenon; however, this number is significantly higher than expected if extinction were due to forces of nature alone. Instead, scientists suggest that extinction is occurring at unprecedented rates as the result of unchecked growth in the human population. Such growth had led to increased resource use (fish, crops, cattle, timber, etc.) in land and sea [1], which has generated dramatic changes in ecosystems across the globe. In addition to contributing to the loss of organisms worldwide, these changes will also prevent many key habitats from continuing to support human populations in the future. Consequently, the U.N. report highlights the beliefs of many conservationists and scientists in the current era: there is a dire need to maintain, or even recover, the health of the world’s ecosystems, before human-induced changes become completely irreversible.

Though we rely on researchers to monitor the state of our earth’s ecosystems, the most effective solutions to the above problem will require the involvement of every person on the planet, from educators to business professionals to policy-makers. There are a variety of ways for each individual to contribute: by supporting certain policies, becoming a citizen scientist, engaging in local clean-ups and research projects, or spreading awareness about this topic to the next generation. At first glance, these may seem simple, but it can be difficult to take these steps without a certain general understanding of conservation needs. How do you know which policies are best, or which species need the most protection? Which ecosystems are most at risk? To highlight a few of the ways in which researchers and conservationists answer these questions (and to help you understand how YOU can help), this article will offer a brief summary of the current state of conservation in one of the most vulnerable parts of our planet: the marine environment.

Conservation “hotspots” and how we manage them

Global conservation is a daunting task. This is largely because there is no approach that suits every single habitat or species. Many species of plant (and even some animals) are immobile, and so protecting the areas in which they are typically found may be sufficient. As a result, perhaps the most common type of approach is often known as “static” management, where conservation measures are put in place to protect resources within a certain spatial boundary [2]. Static management approaches may take the form of marine protected areas (MPAs) or marine reserves in the underwater environment, and national parks on land. In these places, there are restrictions on human activity, including whether people are permitted to extract resources or participate in recreational activities within the protective boundary.

California (USA) is one of the few areas around the world that has an established marine protected area (MPA) network along its coast. Each MPA has certain limitations on human activity, as denoted by the colored dots. Source: California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In general, places that are targeted for conservation priority are known as conservation hotspots. Historically, hotspots have been characterized by high biodiversity – that is, areas with a large number of different species. However, researchers have since learned that biodiversity may not be the only important feature that we should consider when maintaining ecosystem health. Today, hotspots are designated based on several criteria, such as whether the area possesses a high number of species (particularly native and/or endangered species), or is particularly susceptible to threats such as habitat loss [2]. However, there are some limitations to protecting certain hotspots using static management approaches. What happens if the animals that require protection move out of their protected area? What if the environment itself is dynamic, or always changing? Fortunately, addressing these two issues may actually lead to the same solution. As it turns out, animal movement can be a valuable indicator of environmental change, both natural and human-induced. This sort of information may be particularly critical in an environment where organisms exist beyond the range of the typical human eye: underwater.

Animal movement: a key tool for marine conservation

Most animals move, and the ways they do so may vary over time and space. For instance, larger species may migrate once a year over vast distances, while others stay in a relatively contained area (often known as their “home range”) for their entire lives.  Researchers have become increasingly interested in animal movement patterns of all scales because this data can provide a substantial amount of information about the individual (or species) and the surrounding environment. If an animal continuously remains in the same location, for example, it is likely that this area provides a suitable habitat. Conversely, if we observe animals changing their typical movement patterns in a given location, it is possible that something dramatic has changed in that environment. Notably, this environment is often more complex than it seems at first glance, as it includes abiotic (non-living) features, like mountains and weather and bodies or water, as well as biotic (living) components, such as other individuals, predators, or prey species.

As a result of scientific interest in understanding organism-environment interactions, there have been substantial developments in the ways that researchers track (or follow) animal movement patterns. Current technology ranges from radio transmitters (that send out information on the animal’s position over radio waves) to satellite “tags” (that transmit positional data via satellite).  This data can be mapped, showing us exactly where the animal has traveled. Cameras can also be attached to the animals to observe different aspects of the environments through which they move, and accelerometers are used to measure how the animal’s body itself is moving – walking, running, swimming or flying. Importantly, the data produced from these methods can serve as a valuable conservation tool. This is because animal movement patterns indicate where and when an animal is likely to be found, which can allow us to identify the threats they might encounter.

Animal movement data can be overlaid on maps of different environmental factors to help us visualize how organisms react to their surroundings. This figure is a snapshot of a video that shows how broadnose sevengill sharks (N. cepedianus) adjust their movement patterns in response to tidal flow over time, as they pass underneath the Golden Gate Bridge in the San Francisco Bay. The shark track (movement path) is indicated in yellow, and the current vectors (arrows showing the direction and strength of the current) can be seen in red. The depth of the shark is depicted in the upper lefthand corner. Source: McInturf et al., in review.

While this information is certainly useful on land, movement data gathered from tagged animals (or those carrying any of the devices mentioned above) is particularly valuable underwater. Our ability to observe organisms in these environments, especially for long periods of time, is inherently limited. Most marine species don’t ever need to come to the surface, and even air-breathing marine mammals spend a substantial amount of time at depth. Observation becomes even more challenging if we consider that the ocean is more complex and dynamic than what we can perceive from land. Currents, tides, wind, temperature, and changes in the shape of the seafloor come together to generate a constantly shifting environment. Many marine organisms have developed behavioral strategies that mirror their surroundings, roaming throughout the ocean from habitat to habitat. As a result, not only are the animals themselves less visible in marine environments, but it can be challenging to predict their location or keep track of changes in their populations. Threats to different underwater habitats are therefore significantly more difficult to identify, and marine conservation has consequently lagged behind terrestrial (land-based) approaches [2].

Current state of marine conservation

Many countries continue to use static management for both terrestrial and marine habitats. This may work in shallow coastal areas or coral reefs, where the animals are relatively accessible and enforcement of conservation regulations (like within marine protected areas) is feasible. However, static management may be less effective for other types of habitat. For example, the pelagic (or open ocean) environment is the largest realm on earth, and much of it is outside the range of both human eye and the jurisdiction of any single country [3]. This entire environment provides numerous resources, supplying more than 80% of the fish consumed by humans and accounting for nearly half of the total global photosynthesis [3]. However, it is too large to be considered (and managed) as a single biodiversity hotspot. The open ocean is currently known to be threatened by overfishing and pollution; however, compared to other environments, there are very few regulations targeting conservation in this area [3]. This is likely because many species that reside here are highly mobile, like sharks, tuna, and whales. It’s impossible to protect an animal that travels the world’s oceans throughout its entire range of movement. Not only can such organisms be difficult to locate, but the resources required to enforce conservation regulations throughout the open sea – vessels, manpower, money and time – would be astronomical; that is, if it were even possible.

Because of the challenges of working in various parts of the ocean, from pelagic to coastal areas, different solutions have been proposed to improve marine conservation strategies. Perhaps the most straightforward is to identify important areas of the ocean that are suitable for forms of static management. In many cases, a dual-management approach, combining other forms of regulation with MPAs, may be ideal to ensure that we are achieving our goal of protecting an entire ecosystem. For example, improving fishing gear could prevent the wasteful killing of non-targeted animals (known as “bycatch“) as they roam through and beyond the protected habitat. However, there will be two key considerations for future management strategies: organism response to the surrounding environment, and early engagement of the global community to support appropriate conservation measures.

The future of marine animal movement data

EcoCast is a tool recently developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help fishermen decide where to fish based on where common bycatch species are likely to be in the environment on a given day. Source: NOAA.

Many marine environments, like the open ocean, are considered “data poor” compared to the better-studied land and coastal environments. This means that habitats that would best protect species can be difficult to identify. Here is where information on animal movement can be most beneficial. In telling us where and when animals are likely to be found (and therefore what threats they are more likely to face), this data allows us to direct our protective efforts to the places where they may be needed most (see the “EcoCast” tool above). While this is certainly important in the present, it will be critical to monitor movement patterns to assess whether our efforts will remain effective in the future. For example, if we begin to observe migratory animals moving north gradually each year, perhaps the best management strategy would be to work on establishing protected areas where we predict the animals are likely to be. A related strategy has been proposed in which protected areas are established along the animal’s entire movement path, but regulations are only enforced during times of year when the animal known (or predicted) to be there. These “mobile” MPAs, as well as other dynamic (versus static) management approaches, will require that we determine if the animal will continue to exhibit large movement patterns into the future.

Movement data has already proven a valuable tool for marine conservation. Tracking of seabirds, marine mammals, and fish has led to the creation of new marine protected areas, and has reduced the indirect mortality of many endangered species that is generally caused by fishing practices [4]. However, movement data may also help contribute to an even more critical piece of conservation, by offering accessible information to a broader global audience. Movement tracks can be displayed on widely-viewed websites or through other media, and are often relatively easy to interpret understand [4]. A major gap, however, is determining the environmental context in which these movements are occurring. The next major step for researchers is to begin collecting information on habitats, threats, and different resources that organisms may encounter. Combining animal movement data with this environmental information will allow us to map out the locations of both organisms, their best habitats, and their dominant threats on a day-to-day basis. This “real-time” dynamic management approach will inevitably serve as a critical conservation tool for managers, policy-makers, and government agencies, allowing these members of society to make informed decisions about preserving the health of our ecosystems; for instance, how and where to fish, or when and where to establish a protected area. However, they cannot do so alone.

How can you help?

As researchers have begun to examine the value of current practices and explore the use of other approaches to future conservation, an important theme has emerged. Translating data into useful conservation outcomes depends on early engagement between researchers and members of the community or other stakeholders [4]. Ignoring this component can prohibit policy-makers and managers from getting the important information that they need to protect threatened ecosystems. Simply put, research cannot occur in vacuum. It needs to be linked to those who have the power and knowledge to protect local and global habitats and organisms. Importantly, these individuals do not have to hold any specific position in the community. Any person can contribute to addressing this global issue. Here are a few ways that you can help:

1. Keep track of your own local environment and species

Animal movement and habitat data does not have to be collected solely by researchers. You have the power to become intimately familiar with your surroundings. Take note of what you see, monitor trends in animal movement or plant presence, and report your findings to local conservation organizations, universities, or researchers you know.

Many research groups encourage the contribution of citizen scientists – people who may or may not have a formal science education but are simply interested in sharing information on what they know about their environment. Often, these groups offer very user-friendly platforms accessible to any citizen science user. Finding such places requires only a simple search on the Internet. Source:

2. Contribute to study design

Researchers may ask for help in designing their study. This involves asking for information about what each community needs from its environment (see examples of community reports conducted by the Irish Basking Shark Project, freely available for download here). You can engage with these forums, which may take the form of science cafes, presentations at local institutions, or online surveys.

3. Support sustainable ecotourism

The feasibility of conservation measures is often linked to the economy. In many cases, ecotourism is starting to be proposed in places previously dominated by the fishing industry. When conducted responsibly, this is a much more sustainable practice, promoting the survival of marine species rather than their demise. Economic support for ecotourism will also encourage conservation measures for places that may otherwise become overfished.

4. Support legislation about dynamic ocean management

Static management measures are an excellent form of management, but they may not be appropriate for all habitats. Become familiar with your local habitat, or one that you feel strongly about, and consider which approaches to conservation (static or dynamic) may be most suitable. You can then support, or even propose, policies that are tailored to these environments.

5. Encourage local policy-makers to pay attention to animal movement data

Animal movement data is a critical tool for assessing how the environment is changing, particularly underwater. By paying attention to platforms that offer visualizations of this movement data (like websites), you can quickly learn about potential areas for protection, or locations where we may expect to see a change in movement patterns. This information could be useful in supporting policies that use animal movement as an indicator of effective conservation practices in the future.

6. Engage with and reach out to local conservation organizations, agencies, and researchers

In light of the ongoing discussion about the state of our earth’s ecosystems, it is now critically important for researchers, policy-makers, and members of the local community to work together to achieve a common goal. By sharing your opinion, providing information about the local environment, and even engaging in study design, you can help ensure that the data collected by researchers becomes useful in protecting the natural resources of your concern. There are many ways to inform your understanding of a topic. For example, weekly newsletters from local and governmental agencies (as seen below, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) will not only keep you up to date on current practices and policies, but also offer a platform for public comment on new pieces of legislation.

These are but a few of the different avenues for taking part in the ongoing task of conserving the world’s resources, and many of the concepts presented in this article can be applied beyond the marine environment. Regardless of the action taken or the environment protected, increasing evidence reveals that this matter requires more than passive engagement by the global community. It also requires more than concerted scientific effort. As demonstrated by the animal movement studies discussed above, preventative measures can be taken to protect the resources that do exist. The key to successfully doing so, however, is not simply understanding how organisms respond to their environment. Rather, clear communication and engagement between all members of society will be the most critical piece in establishing the most effective measures and policies for global conservation.


Alexandra McInturf is a third-year PhD candidate in the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at UC Davis. She works deliberately with marine species of conservation concern, collecting and analyzing movement data on sharks and rays that could be used to inform various proposed conservation measures. Follow her on Twitter @AGMcInturf, or check out her website here.

References and additional resources:

To learn more about marine conservation in California, click here.

[1] Chappell, B. & Rott, N.(2019) “1 million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction, U.N. report says”. NPR KQED.

[2] Briscoe, D. K., Maxwell, S. M., Kudela, R., Crowder, L. B., & Croll, D. (2016). Are we missing important areas in  pelagic marine conservation? Redefining conservation hotspots in the ocean. Endangered Species Research, 29(3), 229–237.

[3] Game, E. T., Grantham, H. S., Hobday, A. J., Pressey, R. L., Lombard, A. T., Beckley, L. E., …
Richardson, A. J. (2009). Pelagic protected areas: the missing dimension in ocean  conservation. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 24(7), 360–369.

[4] Hays, G. C., Bailey, H., Bograd, S. J., Bowen, W. D., Campagna, C., Carmichael, R. H., …Sequeira, A. M. M. (2019). Translating Marine Animal Tracking Data into Conservation Policy and Management. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 4(5), 459–473.

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