Solutions for ecosystem-level protection of ocean systems under climate change
The Paris Conference of Parties (COP21) agreement renewed momentum for action against climate change, creating the space for solutions for conservation of the ocean addressing two of its largest threats: climate change and ocean acidification (CCOA). Recent arguments that ocean policies disregard a mature conservation research field, and that protected areas cannot address climate change may be over-simplistic at this time when dynamic solutions for the management of changing oceans are needed. We propose a novel approach, based on spatial meta-analysis of climate impact models, to improve the positioning of marine protected areas to limit CCOA impacts. We do this by estimating the vulnerability of ocean ecosystems to CCOA in a spatially-explicit manner, and then co-mapping human activities such as the placement of renewable energy developments and the distribution of marine protected areas. We test this approach in the NE Atlantic considering also how CCOA impacts the base of the food web which supports protected species, an aspect often neglected in conservation studies. We found that, in this case, current regional conservation plans protect areas with low ecosystem-level vulnerability to CCOA, but disregard how species may re-distribute to new, suitable and productive habitats. Under current plans, these areas remain open to commercial extraction and other uses. Here, and worldwide, ocean conservation strategies under CCOA must recognize the long-term importance of these habitat refuges, and studies such as this one are needed to identify them. Protecting these areas creates adaptive, climate-ready and ecosystem-level policy options for conservation, suitable for changing oceans.