A few weeks back I wrote about the use of debates in active learning. We recently had our second debate, about whether, given predictions of a changing climate, it was better to focus conservation on where species are presently, or to set up protected areas where we are predicting that they will move (in effect, creating a safe haven for ecological communities that became climate refugees).  One of our students Sam, acted as rapporteur and created this write up:

A Marine Conservation Ecology Debate: On Climate Change and Shifting Species’ Ranges-Future Concerns vs Present Realities

By Samuel Magaziner


For the marine world, global climate change brings rising seas, increased oceanic temperatures, and a more acidic environment1,2. Such rapid and intense alteration to otherwise homeostatic aquatic environments is bound to apply massive selection pressures upon ecosystem recruitment and success. The coral triangle of today might become the oceanic desert of tomorrow, and vice versa. For us aspiring marine conservationists this raises an interesting question: should we protect endangered species based on where they reside today or, through modeling and prediction of the effects of climate change, ought we protect the future ecosystems of these species of interest?

It was this very question which was up for debate in Professor Joshua Drew’s Marine Conservation Ecology course this past week at Columbia University. At the onset of the debate, one could see a room divided, with the practical concern of financial capability and varying belief in systems of modeling setting the backdrop.

For those in favor of prioritizing the safeguarding of current marine protected reserves (MPAs), the underlying factors came down to finance, lack of faith in models, and the need for a continued maintenance of at risk areas. Some argued that the uncertainty of modelling presents a dangerous margin of ambiguity. Simply, the argument went, if public resources are poured into a predicted area of future importance, and the models proved to be inaccurate, not only would there be large fiscal and time deficit, but a loss in community and governmental trust as well3,4. Tied into this line of thinking was a concern regarding the practicality of acquiring funding for the wholesale speculation of currently otherwise economically unproductive areas. Simply put, they argued, it would be no trivial task to acquire funding from governmental organizations closely related to fisheries management, where, historically, the economic bottom-line can supersede scientific and conservationist interest5,6. Lastly, there was a note of the importance of ongoing recruitment and species protection as a means to maintain future populations and sustainable growth. As one student noted, for less sessile organisms, such as whales and other migratory marine animals, the ongoing health and survival of these populations relies on existing areas of protection, and to remove or defund their protection might prove dire7.

Those in favor of protecting future areas of interest based their arguments on the grounds of the ability to act in a “preventive” and not in a “reactionary” course of action, modeling uncertainty as non-fatal aspect of conservation, and the financial investment as being minimal with a massive upside. The question of model competence was a continuously arising point of contention. Those in favor of future reserve protection noted that models, while imperfect, provide a basis for 1) future and more precise research and 2) give a “general direction and area” to which we ought to shift our focus. Models, while containing uncertainty, they argued, provide a means for generating interest and establishing a sense of urgency towards specific region. Taken together, this might spur conservationist funding. One student also noted that shifts in species’ range is hardly stochastic, that is, not random8. As such, models, even if mildly inaccurate, point biologists and researchers “in the right direction”. As such, investing in the protection of potential future reserves seems logically sound. Another student noted that one finding cited an increase in budgeting of only 14% were one to incorporate protection of an MPA’s future range9. For such a minimal investment, the upside of a continued ecosystem and thriving fisheries’ targets might prove overwhelming. However, they noted, in a world where conservationist funding is already tight, such an increase, however minor, might prove impossible to gather from a governmental agency.

Despite these differences, there came a point, a beautiful point, where the two sides began to agree. A compromise had been forged in the fires of heated discourse. What if, it was suggested, that conservationist efforts and funding were used to establish “corridors” or “buffers” for shifting species’ ranges? The idea went that current MPAs would gain flexible fringes, whose placement would be fluid and founded upon modeling10. These corridors would allow for predicted shifts to occur in a protected zone with minimal financial input. Moreover, current MPA coverage would not suffer, allowing continued recruitment and population recovery while also protecting future investments. While not a “silver bullet”, such a design met the concerns of both parties.

Ultimately, the room concluded upon two points and one question. Point 1: Flexible corridor-based MPAs seem as a viable solution. Point 2: Further research and mitigation of risk via education ought to remain top conservation priorities (if we halt climate change, these reactionary measures will be useless). Question: How do we feel about the role of genetic engineering in our conservation efforts in the face of shifting ranges? As to this last lingering query, well, that’s a topic for another day, and another debate.



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  1. Harley, C. D. G. et al. The impacts of climate change in coastal marine systems. Ecology Letters 9, 228–241 (2006).
  1. Halpern, B. S., Regan, H. M., Possingham, H. P. & McCarthy, M. A. Accounting for uncertainty in marine reserve design. Ecol. Lett. 9, 2–11 (2006).
  1. Pitchford, J. W., Codling, E. A. & Psarra, D. Uncertainty and sustainability in fisheries and the benefit of marine protected areas. Ecol. Modell. 207, 286–292 (2007).
  1. Jackson, J. B. et al. Historical overfishing and the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems. Science 293, 629–37 (2001).
  1. Jenkins, D. Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural history of the Newfoundland cod collapse. Electronic Green Journal 1–2 (2011). doi:10.1016/j.jhg.2012.05.002
  1. Harwood, L. A. et al. Change in the Beaufort Sea ecosystem: Diverging trends in body condition and/or production in five marine vertebrate species. Prog. Oceanogr. 136, 263–273 (2015).
  1. Watson, J. R., Kendall, B. E., Siegel, D. a. & Mitarai, S. Changing Seascapes, Stochastic Connectivity, and Marine Metapopulation Dynamics. Am. Nat. 180, 99–112 (2012).
  1. Makino, A. et al. Spatio-temporal marine conservation planning to support high-latitude coral range expansion under climate change. Divers. Distrib. 20, 859–871 (2014).
  1. Magris, R. A., Pressey, R. L., Weeks, R. & Ban, N. C. Integrating connectivity and climate change into marine conservation planning. Biological Conservation 170, 207–221 (2014).