Right whale restrictions offer glimpse into future price of climate change

Protecting ocean ecosystems and marine life from climate change will require more flexibility in the future, including the type of temporary fisheries closures imposed by Canada in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to protect endangered whales, according to a new report.

The paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances said climate change will erode the effectiveness of "static" marine protected areas across the globe, and "dynamic ocean management" is needed to preserve biodiversity when species or ecosystems move because of a changing ocean.

The term "dynamic management" covers a broad range of measures like temporary or seasonal closures that can be quickly implemented and removed depending on circumstances.

"The North Atlantic right whale is a good example and the Canadian response to that," said Derek Tittensor, a lead author and scientist at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

When the critically endangered whales appeared unexpectedly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017, the results were disastrous. Twelve right whales whales died and Canada implemented speed limits in shipping lanes and temporary fishing-zone closures.

Nine more died this year.

'Clear and urgent need'

Tittensor said it offers a glimpse of the future.

"It is likely it is climate-driven impacts on its prey that has changed the distribution of the right whale," said Tittensor.

"There's not that many examples out there of responding to climate-driven impacts through dynamic management approaches, so Canada could position itself at the cutting edge of this."

Tittensor and more than two dozen co-authors looked at how climate change is being factored into the planning and management of marine protected areas around the world. They concluded there is no way to know because the information is not collected in one place.

"There is a clear and urgent need to move toward actively integrating climate change as a core consideration of [marine protected area] planning and implementation," the authors, academics and government employees from around the world, wrote.

They make eight recommendations to global policy makers that manage marine protected areas, including a call to develop new dynamic management tools that could count toward global protection targets and establishing a database to track adaptation in marine protected areas.

It also recommends making climate change management mandatory in every new marine protected area.

Canada has achieved its international commitment to protect 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2020.

Peter Duley/NOAA Fisheries Northeast Fisheries Science Center

The report said in the face of rapid climate change, the tool kit to preserve biodiversity must change.

It said what's needed is a system that can combine the advantages of long-term conservation provided by marine protected areas and short-term dynamic management.

It recommends the creation of "climate-responsive biodiversity closures" that would track a species or habitat expected to move because of climate change rather than protect a fixed location.

"They may, therefore, be particularly suited to biogenic habitats (e.g., corals, kelp forests, and seagrass meadows), oceanographically complex regions, or aggregation points that will shift but continue to provide a key habitat for species assemblages," the report said.