The swimways Initiative
Oceans are connected. As in terrestrial ecosystems, many marine species undergo in lengthy migrations across the oceans to feed, breed or rest. Thanks to MigraMar researchers and collaborators, the intricated movement of these species has started to be uncovered for the Eastern Pacific Region. One of the key features aspects of these movements are how they connect several Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) of the region, such as Galapagos (Ecuador), Malpelo (Colombia), Cocos (Costa Rica) and Coiba (Panamá).
The sad true is that these species face many dangers while moving away from these MPAs. Unsustainable, illegal, unregulated, and underreported fisheries are driving many of this species to the brink of extinction. The Swimways Initiative, or MigraVías as they are called in Spanish, aims to reverse these trends by providing tangible protection for species that move along predictable routes and building resilience to climate change. MigraMar is working with national governments to identify and protect Swimways that link Marine Protected Areas across the Eastern Pacific region. This initiative involves transboundary collaboration in data collection, analysis, management, enforcement, and sustainable and equitable use of the benefits generated.
What they are
The Swimways are a set of connectivity conservation projects that create linkages and marine corridors between protected areas and other patches of habitats, such as seamounts and underwater ridges, increasing the mobility and range of many species and allowing them to move across the seascape so that gene flow and diversity are maintained between local populations.
How they help
By linking populations throughout the seascape, there is a lower chance for extinction and a much greater support for species richness, and populations resilience against climate change.
To propose a Swimway, MigraMar and its allies consolidate the most up-to-date science available on migratory species and produce a series of key evaluations:
A biological and ecological analysis
To determine the relevance of an area as a marine corridor, a strong scientific analysis is carried out to assess if it provides of structural and functional connectivity to two or more areas of conservation concern. In the structural connectivity, an analysis of the geological and oceanographic characteristic is carried out to detect conditions providing of a continuum habitat that could allow or promote migratory species to aggregate and migrate through it. In the functional connectivity, an in-depth analysis of the behavioral, population and conservation ecology of marine migratory and non-migratory species inhabiting the study site.
A socio-economic analysis
To determine the economic and social value of an area, an analysis of the main actors, the ecosystem services (with focus on direct use services and resource use conflicts), and the demographics of an area is carried out. This is critical to characterize the current and future management and conservation scenarios that could be adopted.
A legal feasibility analysis
The Swimway proposal must contemplate adequate marine spatial planning, ordering and use. Sub-areas with total and partial restrictions for fisheries use are analyzed with both spatial and temporal considerations.
MigraMar researchers actively worked in the consolidation of the Coiba-Malpelo Swimway, the first transboundary Swimway in the world connecting the oceanic habitats of Malpelo Island (Colombia) with coastal Coiba (Panamá). Currently, MigraMar is working towards the consolidation of the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway, which will connect the Cocos (Costa Rica) and Galapagos (Ecuador) Islands, and the evaluation of a potential Swimway within and beyond the Mexican Pacific region. The swimways will provide improved protection and management over the areas around the four MPAs, particularly around seamounts over the Malpelo, Yuruparí, Coiba and Cocos Ridges. The Coiba-Malpelo and the Cocos-Galapagos Swimways are within the Marine Corridor of the Eastern Tropical Pacific (CMAR) scope, an intergovernmental treaty signed by Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama to promote the connectivity in this region and ensure the sustainable use of its resources (www.cmarpacifico.org).
The Coiba-Malpelo Swimway
The research efforts of MigraMar and other institutions have revealed how the mobility of various migratory species connected Malpelo with other MPAs of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Region. This connectivity also occurs at the level of sessile and benthic species (like corals, sponges and others) whose larval stages promote a significant percentage of connectivity between both oceanic and coastal MPAs. In response to this connectivity, the countries of Colombia and Panama joined forces to create new MPAs, or expand existing ones, so that they border on each other on the edge of their exclusive economic zones.
The creation in September of 2015 of the Coiba Ridge Managed Resources Area in Panama; and in October of 2017 the expansion of the Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary, and the creation of the Yurupari Integrated Management National District in Colombia, marked a regional conservation milestone by favoring the transboundary management of highly productive ocean areas of conservation importance. This area was later expanded in 2021 when Panama announced the further expansion of Coiba, now limiting not only with Colombia but also with Costa Rica’s exclusive economic zone. This marine area provides an improved transboundary protection opportunity for migratory marine species, allowing the consolidation of the first Swimway in the world: the Coiba-Malpelo Swimway.
The Cocos-Galapagos Swimway
Since its initial conception, the CMAR was created to conserve biodiversity and promote sustainable use of marine and coastal resources in the Exclusive Economic Zones of Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama. In fact, the CMAR considers the region between the CINP and the GMR as a biological corridor with significant conservation value. This region exhibits a high similarity in its benthic community composition. Large schools of jacks, snappers, and Hammerhead Sharks dominate the region’s marine seascape. Species such as the Whale Shark, Silky Shark, and sea turtles are also residents of the four nations’ MPAs, but not exclusive to any. Scientific evidence shows a high connectivity within the ETPO, both with respect to sharks and sea turtles and fish.
The consolidation of the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway is the next logical step to strengthen conservation efforts by Ecuador and Costa Rica and respond directly to various public and private initiatives in the region. In 2018, MigraMar proposed a conservation area to connect Galapagos and Cocos Island of approximately 240,000 km2 after the exhaustive analysis on the movements of 15 species (389 individuals) from which MigraMar scientists and collaborators have collected data in the last 15 years.
The Mexican Pacific Swimways
With the creation of MPAs, such as the Revillagigedo National Park (PNR), the Cabo Pulmo National Park (PNCP) and the Espiritu Santo Archipelago National Park (PNAES), it has been possible to partially preserve the functionality and ecological diversity of the Mexican Pacific. There is sufficient evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of these MPAs in protecting subtidal reef (or benthic) communities. However, despite conservation efforts in each area, a marked population decline of highly migratory species has been also detected within the Mexican Pacific. This mobility hinders conservation efforts, particularly to the detriment of sensitive species, even with moderate levels of fishing extraction.
Current studies are qualitatively and quantitatively evaluating the outstanding ecological features that characterize the Mexican Pacific region with emphasis on five ecoregions: South Californian Pacific, Eastern Gulf of California, Western Gulf of California, Mexican Insular Transitional Pacific, and a control zone, Clipperton Atoll (belonging to France). The areas of conservation interest take into account the points of high importance of migratory connectivity registered to date, particularly those of bony fish, cartilaginous fish, reptiles, and marine mammals. The project expects to develop decision support tools to further improve the status and migratory movements of pelagic diversity within and beyond the Mexican Pacific.
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
A changing ocean, a changing habitat for migratory species
Climate oscillations normally occur in ocean systems, and thus species have developed a capacity to adapt, by shifting their distribution to nearby stable domains. Large marine predators such as tunas and sharks are particularly fit to this, roaming large areas to find their preferred habitat conditions or prey. Some of these highly migratory species are also important target or by-catch species of industrial and artisanal fisheries. However, the current exacerbated rate of climate change compared to previous natural changes, and the increased human pressure on marine resources already threatening many predatory fish populations, have raised concerns about the long-term resilience of these species, the ecosystem adaptability to buffer and recover from changing oceanographic conditions, and the economic sustainability of the fishing industry.
Guided by prey availability and habitat preferences, the occurrence of both commercial and threatened migratory species is heavily influenced by the strength and periodicity of the upwelling systems occurring along the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Weakened upwelling systems caused by climate change and subsequent lower overall productivity can result in changes of habitat quality and prey distributions, impacting migratory behavior and health of predatory species. This could potentially lead to changed and reduced distribution ranges and disappearance from sites where they are commonly observed and fished today, resulting in economic hardships for the several hundred thousand fisher families that rely on the productivity of this region. Examples of these scenarios have been reported during short-term cyclic events, such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, across the Eastern Pacific Ocean. As such, the pressing need of building resilience in the GMR upwelling system draws the question on what management actions should be adopted to address climate change impacts on marine migratory species and associated fisheries of the Eastern Pacific Ocean.
A call for generating a predictive strategy to anticipate and mitigate the potentially severe conservation and socio- economic impacts of expected changes due to climate change thus becomes pressing. This is underscored by projections of global climate change over the 21st century – which single out the eastern Equatorial Pacific as one the areas of most pronounced warming on Earth, and indicate that the frequency and severity of regional climate extremes (largely associated with the El Niño Southern Oscillation) will increase as the planet warms.
Our project therefore aims to:
- Model the response of commercial and threatened migratory species to changes in oceanographic conditions in and around the GMR upwelling system.
- Generate freely accessible, transparent and interactive tools to inform the various management scenarios of climate change and fishing effort distribution on both commercial and threatened migratory species.
By evaluating different management scenarios to mitigate climate change effect on these species, our proposed project outcomes will better inform managers and authorities of the countries in the ETPO, how to maintain the economic sustainability of people relying on artisanal and industrial fishing operations while improving the conservation of commercially and ecologically important migratory species in the region.
Shark Nursery grounds
The scalloped hammerhead shark has just been recently listed as a critically endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN). Severe population decline has been detected for this species across its global distribution, including within the oceanic marine protected areas of the Eastern Tropical Pacific. In order to stop its decline and favor its population recovery, this species requires adequate management in their different life stages.
The ultimate goal of this 3-year project is to implement conservation strategies in key nursery sites for hammerhead sharks in four countries of the Eastern Pacific. The project focuses in identifying nursery grounds and provide decision support tools to improve protection of this species. Some potential nursery grounds have been already identified within coastal habitats spanning from Mexico to Peru, yet in order to develop a community-based conservation approach there is still a need to establish whether these areas can be defined as nursery grounds.
Goals of the first year of the project include the identification of at least three nursery sites in Ecuador, both in Galapagos and in the mainland, define and share a standardized monitoring methodology with other Eastern Pacific countries and start conservation strategies with local fishermen in Ecuador through an outreach and environmental education campaign that highlights direct benefits to communities associated with nursery ground conservation. Goals of the second year of the project include the identification of at least one additional shark nursery area in mainland Ecuador, maintain the monitoring of the sites already identified (Puerto Cabuyal-Ecuadorian coastal), (El Eden and Venecia-Galapagos), development of the conservation plan for shark nursery areas, define and share a standardized monitoring methodology with other Eastern Pacific countries, socialize a potential marine protected area in the Cabuyal region and maintain the ocean literacy program and capacity building of fishers communities.
During the third year, the MigraMar team and the community of Puerto Cabuyal (mainland Ecuador) consolidated and submitted the proposal for a new marine protected area. This proposal was accepted by the Ecuadorian Government, and in November 25th 2021 the Puerto Cabuyal Punta San Clemente Marine Reserve was created https://www.ambiente.gob.ec/ecuador-comprometido-con-la-conservacion-nueva-reserva-marina-en-manabi/ This new protected area has an area of 130,427.00 hectares, covering the north-central region of Manabi Province, central Ecuador, and it will contribute to the conservation of several iconic and endangered species. MigraMar work was critical on this aspect, as the registered abundance of neonates and juveniles of hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini) allowed to identify that the area constitutes a fundamental nursery area for this species.Learn more about our Baby Shark project results in our Institutional Publications and Members Publications.
Regional Tagging project
As top predators, most migratory species contribute to the healthy functioning and maintenance of the diversity of marine ecosystems. However, their intrinsic life parameters (slow growth, late maturation, small litter size) make them highly vulnerable to overfishing.
In recent years, several studies have pointed towards large scale collapses occurring in marine species populations around the world, as a result both of directed fisheries and the tendency to catch marine megafauna incidentally in other fisheries (such as the tuna longline industry). The resulting population decline had led scientist to categorize many as vulnerable, endangered or even critically endangered.
The Eastern Pacific Ocean’s marine protected areas fully protects marine migratory species within their boundaries. However, since the 1990s there has been strong evidence of the continued occurrence of shark, rays and other large marine megafauna as bycatch or illegally targeted by fisheries within and beyond all MPAs. At the same time, there has been a dramatic increase in dive tourism in the region, with hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, sea turtles and marine mammals as the main attraction. Dive guides have become increasingly concerned that these species numbers are declining, and that a sustainable business activity such as marine dive tourism may be seriously affected by the unsustainable practices of illegal fisheries activities and industrial fishing outside the MPAs.
In order to understand how to better manage marine migratory species, MigraMar researchers started the Regional Tagging Project in 2006, an international coalition of scientist using standardized methods to assess the movement or marine megafauna across the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean. This is the longest running project within MigraMar, and it is focused on over 20 species, including hammerhead sharks, silky sharks, whale sharks, giant manta rays, leatherback turtles, hawksbill turtles, green turtles, olive ridley turtles, humpback whales, orcas, yellowfin tunas, Southern Ocean sunfish, and more.
All these species usually carry out migrations, either for feeding, breeding or for their different life stage needs. In order to study their migratory patterns, MigraMar uses two types of technology: acoustic tracking and satellite tracking. Acoustic tagging is used to assess the fine-scale habitat use and connectivity of marine species throughout the ETP region. It uses acoustic devices that emit a coded sound signal to passively track a marine animal whenever it passes by receiver stations that are permanently listening for the coded signals. Satellite Tagging is used to evaluate spatial behavior of fish, turtles, and marine mammals in areas within and beyond marine protected areas and national borders. It uses tags that are affixed to the animal and that will send its geolocation information via satellites (If you want to learn more about these, please read our Research Methods.
This project has been critical to depict previously unknown migratory routes of shark, rays, marine mammals and sea turtles. Since the first tagging event, this project showed Galapagos, Cocos, and Malpelo Islands are all connected and sharing the same population of hammerhead, Galapagos and green sea turtles. The scale of the movements of some species are so broad that the regional connectivity spans as from Mexico all the way to Patagonia and Antarctica.
The information on this project has served proof of the existence of the marine corridor in the region, further supporting the regional efforts carried out by the CMAR intergovernmental office (www.cmarpacifico.org). This became the foundation of our Swimways Initiative. Also, several publications have been produced out of data collected by this project, with management recommendations being continuously adopted by governments from Mexico to Chile.
If you want to learn more on the migratory routes of the studied species, please visit our Marine Migrations Portal. Learn more about our Regional Tagging project results in our Institutional Publications and Members Publications.