The Swimways Initiative
Oceans are connected. As in terrestrial ecosystems, many marine species undergo lengthy migrations across the oceans to feed, reproduce or rest. Thanks to MigraMar researchers and collaborators, the intricate movement of these species has started to be uncovered for the Eastern Pacific Ocean. One of the key features aspects of these movements is how they connect several marine protected areas (MPAs) of the region, such as Galapagos (Ecuador), Malpelo (Colombia), Coco (Costa Rica) and Coiba (Panama).
The sad truth is that these species face many dangers once they leave these MPAs. Unsustainable, illegal, unregulated, and underreported fisheries are driving many of these 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 MPAs across the Eastern Pacific Ocean. This initiative involves transboundary collaboration in data collection, analysis, management, enforcement, and sustainable and equitable use of the benefits generated.
What are they?
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, reducing the risk of mortality for species as they 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 population 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:
Biological and ecological analysis
To determine the relevance of an area as a marine corridor, we assess whether the corridor provides structural and functional connectivity to two or more areas of conservation concern. For structural connectivity, an analysis of the geological and oceanographic characteristics of habitats is carried out to detect conditions that could allow or promote migratory species to aggregate and migrate through them. For functional connectivity, we analyze the behavioral, population and conservation ecology of the species inhabiting the study sites.
To determine the economic and social value of an area, we identify the main actors, the ecosystem services (with focus on direct use services and resource use conflicts), and the demographics of an area. This is critical to characterize the current and future management and conservation scenarios that could be adopted.
Legal feasibility analysis
The Swimway proposal must contemplate adequate marine spatial planning that contemplates sustainable use of resources, seasonality of species, distribution of marine species and human resources, monitoring and adaptability. Sub-areas with total or partial restrictions for fisheries 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 Island, Panamá. Currently, MigraMar is working towards the consolidation of the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway, which connects the Coco, Costa Rica, and Galapagos Islands, Ecuador; and the evaluation of a potential Swimway within and beyond the Mexican Pacific region. These swimways will provide improved protection and management over the areas around the 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 Colombia, Costa Rica, 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 Pacific Ocean. 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 each other on the edge of their exclusive economic zones.
The expansion of the Coiba Ridge Managed Resources Area in Panama in 2021, and the Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary and the Yuruparí Integrated Management National District in Colombia in 2022, marked a regional conservation milestone by favoring the transboundary management of highly productive ocean areas of conservation importance. These adjacent MPAs provide a unique management opportunity for the Colombian and Panamanian exclusive economic zones, while 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 Coco Island National Park, Costa Rica, and the Galapagos Marine Reserve, Ecuador, 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 whale and silky sharks, and sea turtles are also residents of the four nations’ MPAs, but not exclusive to any. Scientific evidence shows a high connectivity within the Eastern Pacific Ocean, both with respect to marine mammals, sea turtles and fish.
The consolidation of the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway is the logical step to the 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. In 2022, Costa Rica expanded its protected areas of Cocos National Park and the Seamounts Marine Managed Area towards the border with Ecuador, while the later created a new protected area that connects the Galapagos Marine Reserve with Costa Rica’s expanded MPAs. By doing this, both countries paved the way towards the consolidation of the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway and the conservation of this important migratory route for highly mobile species.
The Mexican Pacific Swimways
With the creation of MPAs, such as the Revillagigedo National Park, the Cabo Pulmo National Park and the Espíritu Santo Archipelago National Park, 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. The mobility of these species 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 consider the points of high importance of migratory connectivity registered to date, particularly those of bony and cartilaginous fish, and marine reptiles and mammals. The project expects to develop decision support tools to further improve the status and protect 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 behavior, 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 human-induced climate change compared to previous natural changes, and the increased human pressure on marine resources already threatening many marine animal 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 distribution, 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 hundreds of thousands 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 Galapagos Marine Reserve 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 socioeconomic 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 Galapagos Marine Reserve 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 region 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.
Shark nursery grounds
The scalloped hammerhead shark, Sphyrna lewini, has been recently listed as a critically endangered species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List. Severe population decline has been detected for this species across its global distribution, including the Eastern Pacific Ocean. In order to stop its decline and favor its population recovery, this species requires adequate management during its 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 on identifying nursery grounds and providing decision support tools to improve protection of the species. Some potential nursery grounds have been already identified within coastal habitats spanning from Mexico to Peru, however, there is still a need to establish whether these areas can be defined as nursery grounds in order to develop a community-based conservation approach.
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 monitoring in the sites already identified (Puerto Cabuyal, Ecuadorian coastal, and El Edén and Venecia, Galapagos), development of the conservation plan for shark nursery areas, defining and sharing a standardized monitoring methodology with other Eastern Pacific countries, socializing a potential marine protected area in the Cabuyal region and maintaining the ocean literacy program and capacity building of fisher communities.
During the third year, the MigraMar team and the community of Puerto Cabuyal consolidated and submitted the proposal for a new MPA. This proposal was accepted by the Ecuadorian Government, and on 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 hectares, covering the north-central region of Manabí Province, central Ecuador, and it will contribute to the conservation of several iconic and endangered species. MigraMar’s work was critical on this aspect, as the registered abundance of neonates and juveniles of hammerhead sharks helped identify that the new MPA 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 marine ecosystem diversity. 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 longline tuna industry. The resulting population decline has led scientists to categorize many migratory species as vulnerable, endangered or even critically endangered.
The Eastern Pacific Ocean’s marine protected areas protect marine migratory species within their boundaries. However, since the 1990s there has been strong evidence of the continued occurrence of shark, ray and other large marine megafauna as bycatch or illegally targeted by fisheries within and beyond MPAs. At the same time, there has been a dramatic increase in dive tourism in the region, with sharks, sea turtles and marine mammals as the main attraction. Dive guides have become increasingly concerned that the populations of these species are declining, and that a sustainable business activity such as marine dive tourism may be seriously affected by illegal fishing within and MPAs and unsustainable fishing practices outside 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 scientists using standardized methods to assess the movement or marine megafauna across the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The longest running project within MigraMar 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 during 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 Eastern Pacific Ocean. 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, sea 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 their geolocation information via satellites (if you want to learn more about these, please read our Research Methods.
TThis project has been critical to depict previously unknown migratory routes of sharks, 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 and Galapagos sharks 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.
TThe information on this project has served as proof of the existence of a 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 Institutional Publications and Members Publications.