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‘It’s very political’: The nearly impossible job of being a marine planner | marine life

‘IIt’s a fantastic experience to be next to a 12-meter-long whale shark, or to get up close with a predator like a tiger shark,” says marine scientist Alex Hearn. “Nothing beats getting in the water and swimming alongside one of these incredible creatures.”

Most of the time, however, Hearn, a biology professor at San Francisco University in Quito in Ecuador, is at his desk wrestling with algorithms in an effort to protect the world’s oceans. Hearn is a marine planner – like a planner, but for the sea.

As with urban planning, Hearn is technical work, taking complex data sets collected from scientific surveys and studies and processing them using software to find solutions to specific questions: how space is used, what can be built on and which areas need to be protected. Every decision is a delicate balancing act that involves having to consider the needs of many different parties, from businesses to local people – which at sea also means those with scales, fins, shells and tentacles.

A blue shark with a tag attached to its dorsal fin.
A blue shark with a tag attached to its dorsal fin. Photography: Sofia M Green

As space in the world’s oceans is under pressure, marine spatial planning is becoming increasingly important to protect ecosystems, as well as to balance the needs of marine life with human activities, such as fishing, energy, tourism and shipping. Hearn has spent the past three years working on a marine spatial plan looking at protecting the oceans around the Galápagos, which has resulted in Ecuador, Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica joining their marine reserves to form an interconnected area. – the Ecuadorian government expanding its existing Galápagos. marine reserve of 60,000 m².

“In the case of the Galápagos, marine spatial planning was born out of a cauldron of concerns,” Hearn explains. “All levels of society have an interest, from local fishermen to government.”

One question that Hearn and his team of international scientists and researchers considered was how to protect the migratory routes of sharks, turtles and other species. To know the routes, they had to mark the sharks. “We go out, grab them, bring them alongside the boat, attach satellite beacons, then let them go and follow them,” he says. After which, he’s back at his desk and it’s time to use the data to find ways to protect the ocean while keeping local communities, businesses and government happy.

His team uses Marxan, a suite of software tools, to determine which areas are best to protect. “It prioritizes where you might want to take conservation action – in this case, create an MPA [marine protected area] — by annoying the fewest number of people,” Hearn explains. “We wanted to protect certain species, their migration routes and offshore feeding grounds, and protect highly productive habitats.”

The algorithm takes into account the cost of protection, ie the loss of fishing possibilities. Two main fleets operate in the area, so Hearn and his team took 10-year-old catch data and assigned a monetary value to each location. “You’re trying to figure out, ‘Where can I protect 50% of our areas from hammerhead sharks and minimize the impact on the longline fleet?’ You are trying to maximize conservation at the lowest cost.

A hatchling hammerhead shark is released into the water in Ecuador.
A hatchling hammerhead shark is released into the water in Ecuador. Photography: Alex Hearn

Data fed into Marxan came from many sources, including scientists and research teams who have spent years on the ocean – including one that tags albatrosses and another that studies sea turtles. “The person who did the Marxan number calculations was in York, UK,” says Hearn.

According to Hearn, marine planning can be “very political,” as well as frustratingly slow. As with town planning, there is a huge bureaucracy. Not everyone is eager to help either. When they tried to get fishing data from the Galápagos Vice Department of Fisheries, Hearn said they were “stuck…so we had to work on older datasets.”

There’s also the need for incredible attention to detail – checking and double-checking the numbers. “There’s a lot of time spent on the computer,” he says. “It can be tedious and cumbersome at times, but that’s the process.”

Sarah Brooks steers a boat.
Sarah Brooks has been working on the Bermuda Ocean Prosperity program since September 2020. Photography: Sarah Brooks

Sarah Brooks, another marine planner, knows how it feels. Although she’s spent a lot of time on and in the ocean, including sailing around the world, her job now involves a lot more screen time. “My job is incredibly desk-based,” says the marine spatial planner, who has worked on the Bermuda Ocean Prosperity program since September 2020.

Brooks collects data from scientists, divers, fishermen and others who use the water. “My job is to get this information in a way that’s useful for marine spatial planning.” She transforms it using tools like Prioritizr, software that helps her create detailed ocean maps to show the best areas for marine life, like fish or coral. Brooks produces what look like ocean heatmaps of Bermuda. “The darker the red, the better the abundance or diversity,” says Brooks.

As with Ecuador, Bermuda has different competing interests in ocean space. Brooks works with 19 organizations to meet the needs of residential areas, tourism, fishing, shipping and utilities – such as cables or pipelines in the water – and marine life. Its Marine Spatial Plan helps guide decisions on how space is allocated, including potential sites for offshore wind farms, as part of the Bermuda government’s goal of 85% renewable energy. by 2035. They do this by excluding areas that are too shallow, too close to shore or the airport, important seagrass beds and coral reefs, and the most important fishing grounds.

“We give the rest of the space an index of suitability, from ‘least fit’ to ‘most fit’,” Brooks says. This produces a heat map to show the best areas for a particular project. “A developer would still need to do feasibility studies and environmental impact reports, but that’s a starting point,” she says.

Work can be frustrating. Just like city planning, there are rules and regulations, piles of paperwork and a lot of bureaucracy. “There are a lot of laws,” says Brooks. “It’s not like one or two people make a decision and you follow it. You consulted a lot of different people, which can delay things. Creating a draft marine spatial plan policy document for Bermuda has already taken two and a half years, and it’s not over yet.

Patience is key to surviving as a sea planner. In the Galápagos, the Ecuadorian government opted for much smaller protected areas than those recommended by Hearn and his team. “We have proposed to tackle issues such as illegal fishing in Galapagos and climate change, but this MPA focuses on migration routes,” he says. “We’re happy with what we got, initially.”

A whale shark in Bermuda.
A whale shark in Bermuda. Photography: Jonathan R Green

Marine planning is also rewarding and essential, says Hearn. ” It has to be done. We are not living sustainably as a global society. I’ve always wanted to get involved, and the way I saw I could contribute was to help move us towards a more sustainable economy and keep the oceans healthy for future generations.


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