Our Projects
The ocean is vast and powerful, yet extremely vulnerable to human activity. Marine ecosystems are extremely sensitive to human activities, and many of them, including the Gulf of Mexico large marine ecosystem, are threatened by habitat loss, unsustainable fishing practices, and boat collisions. It is critical for marine planners to be able to identify a way for economically valuable human activity to harmlessly coexist with marine ecological activity.
Healthy oceans sustain human populations and strong economies around the world—so it’s in our interest to ensure they are viable.
A thriving and diverse underwater ecosystem helps control coastal erosion, boost recreational and commercial fishing, and support a strong tourism industry. Careful marine planning and resource management should aim to conserve critical marine species’ habitats and the pathways that connect them. For example, using species migration patterns to identify highly-trafficked areas can allow marine conservation planners to highlight these zones as conservation priorities and close them to unsustainable fishing or congested boat traffic.
Marine Species Tagging
A detailed look at migratory pathways can provide insight into the consistency and specificity of migration patterns, both geographically and seasonally. These ecological assessments can benefit enormously from recent improvements in the accuracy and compactness of animal telemetry sensors. The Nature Conservancy has deployed its own telemetry sensors—SPOT and PSAT tags—to track the movements of sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. These sensors will allow the Conservancy to assess the sharks’ migratory patterns and specific habitat needs and relate specific environmental conditions, like temperature and salinity, to the movements of these sharks.
Important Areas for Migratory Species
Human activity in the Gulf can threaten marine species migration. Although it is not feasible or even desirable to stop all activity in the Gulf, it is critical to consider migratory blueways when zoning marine activities such as fishing, oil drilling, and shipping. The Conservancy is conducting advanced spatial analyses and creating models to identify key areas in the Gulf that are integral to the life cycles of numerous migratory species. The analyses incorporate a wealth of marine migration data, and the aim is to offer marine planners and decision makers the information they need to create and advance their conservation priorities.
Atlantic bluefin tuna are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as ‘endangered,’ with almost all other species of tuna listed as ‘near threatened’ or ‘vulnerable’ due to challenges such as unsustainable fishing practices and habitat loss. Tuna are a critical food source for millions, yet most tuna stocks are being fully or over-exploited.
The healthiest population of bluefin tuna are in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean. The species depends on the Gulf of Mexico to reach their spawning grounds and sustain its population. Many bluefin tuna are born in the Gulf of Mexico, cross the Atlantic Ocean to feed near Europe, then return to the Gulf to breed. That makes the Gulf a critical region for the bluefin’s lifecycle and an important key to sustaining the species’ valuable population. Conservation project, identifying migratory pathways,  the spatial density of tuna traffic, and potential threats to their migration in the Gulf. This data is available through the Conservancy’s Migratory Species full report and Blueways Conservation Decision Support Tool.
The project has expanded to phase two, to study several other tuna species, including albacore, bonito, bigeye, blackfin, little tunny, skipjack, and yellowfin. This growth involves collecting additional animal tracking data from researchers and institutions in the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba; more complex analyses to identify stopover hotspots as conservation priorities in the Gulf of Mexico; and identifying threats to corridors and hotspots. The Conservancy’s goal is to provide effective and accessible spatial information, identify management and conservation needs, and offer tools for fishery managers that can be used to create effective management plans to conserve tuna populations.
Dynamic Biogeography
Satellite-tracked drifter trajectory data can be used to improve understanding of transport and dispersion of the ocean. This understanding can in turn improve analysis, modeling, and prediction of ocean and coastal currents. Dynamic biogeography is the study of the ocean zones and their linkages or lack thereof due to ocean movement patterns. Dynamic biogeographical information is highly valuable for planning offshore oil exploration, mitigating the effects of oil spills, and assessing the connectivity of fish larvae (Miron, 2017). The Nature Conservancy is incorporating this physical oceanography into the study of migratory species connectivity and threats to species migration in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.