Creating marine protected areas with mobile boundaries

Global MPA map

Around 8% of the ocean is currently covered by protected areas. Aichi Target 11 states that 17% of terrestiral areas and 10% of marine areas should be protected by 2020. Source: UNEP-WCMC and IUCN (2020). Protected Planet: The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA).

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a common management tool to safeguard biodiversity in international waters.  They create a network of waterways that can protect mobile species, prevent overuse by humans, and connect large ecosystems.  Regardless of size, MPAs usually have a defined border that remains static over time and space.

A recent call to action, however, challenges this typical design by suggesting a more flexible and adaptive management tool: MPAs with mobile boundaries.

Loggerhead Turtle

Adult male loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) fitted with a transmitter for satellite tracking of migratory patterns. Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology

While static MPA networks are effective, their use as a management tool can be limited.  Many marine species in need of protection are migratory, meaning that their conservation needs shift across space. Other protected species only use specific marine regions at certain times of the year, so that their conservation needs shift over time. On top of this, climate change will alter ocean conditions over the long term, leading to continual shifts in species’ ranges across large areas.

Mobile boundaries for MPAs makes it possible to create dynamic, area-based management tools that can adapt to current conditions. Instead of a static network, mobile boundaries could shift over time and space according to key species’ needs. For example, shipping routes could temporarily be re-routed according to known migratory whale locations. Restrictions on discharge limitations or gear restrictions within MPAs could be imposed or lifted based on the presence of sensitive species.

The possibility of mobile MPAs has arisen only recently due to the huge advances in modern digital technology.  Initiatives such as the Migratory Connectivity Project (MiCO) and TurtleWatch can efficiently collect and disseminate tracking information on important species and build large data sets about movement routes. The ability to track ocean-going vessels in real time allows for constant communication about boundary locations and current restrictions. The ability to collect current information on both human use and protected species use of the same marine region allows for a relatively quick management response.

These mobile MPAs would not eliminate traditional, static MPAs, but rather complement them.  They would allow managers to maximize connectivity between critical conservation regions in a dynamic, responsive way.  As a management tool, they offer a unique and highly effective way to both support marine biodiversity and allow for sustainable human use.


Maxwell, S.M., Gjerde, K.M., Conners, M.G. and Crowder, L.B. 2020. Mobile protected areas for biodiversity on the high seas. Science 367(6475): 252-254.

The importance of migratory data to inform global ocean policy (November 2019)

2020-01-29T14:01:40-05:00 January 30th, 2020|

About the Author:

Heather Cayton
Heather Cayton is the Managing Director of and a Research Assistant at Michigan State University. She received her B.S. from the University of Virginia and her M.S. from Virginia Tech, and has spent over 10 years studying corridors and rare butterflies in North Carolina.