Protecting wildlife on land is hard: Animals migrate across vast areas of wilderness that are difficult to patrol. At sea, where fences are impossible, even the areas moves. The pitches of ocean most worthy of protection—teeming fisheries and spawning grounds—move with the seasons and currents.
It’s time, argues Larry Crowder, Stanford University’s science director for the Center for Ocean Solutions, that we move the protected areas along with them. Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Crowder argued that stationary reserves around underwater mounts and reefs, known as Marine Protected Areas, should be complemented by mobile parks that follow areas where conditions sustain sensitive marine life.
"The stationary reserves do little to protect highly mobile animals, like most of the fish, turtles, sharks, and seabirds," said Crowder at the recent AAAS meeting in Vancouver. "We think of protected areas as places that are locked down on a map. But places in oceans are not locked down, they move."
Crowder proposes one mobile reserve be located in the north Pacific convergence zone where the collision of two massive currents causes nutrient-rich upwelling that supports plankton, small fish, turtles, and major predators.
"People might say the only way to achieve conservation for some marine life is to protect it everywhere in the ocean," says Crowder in the Guardian. "But if we know where they move to, we don’t need to close the entire Pacific Ocean, we just need to close this place where they are really concentrated," Crowder said. "The time is right for this idea. We are scientifically primed to do it."
There are 1,600 MPAs in the U.S. today covering more than 40% of the country’s marine territory (most of it in the Virginia Atlantic marine ecoregion from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, northward to Cape Cod). These aren’t pure parks: Almost all all of these (86%) are considered "multiple use," allowing fishing, boating, and other uses, with only 8% of this area in the "no take" designation (most akin to the no-hunting restrictions in national parks).
None of the "floating" parks Crowder has proposed exist, but the need to create them may only grow. Scientists at the International Program on the State of the Ocean concluded last year that conditions in the oceans are now consistent with "every previous major extinction of species in Earth’s history" and the pace of this degradation is far faster than has been predicted.