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Parks that can move when the animals do

Climate change is pushing marine animals out of their protected areas. Ways must be found to ensure that their protection migrates with them, naturalists say.

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As their feeding areas shift, so must these Magellanic penguins, who live at the tip of South America. Scientists are thinking up ways to protect threatened species that move out of protected areas into unprotected ones.

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When scientist Dee Boersma first arrived to Punta Tombo, Argentina, in the early 1980s, the colony of Magellanic penguins there was 300,000 breeding pairs strong. Since then, they’ve declined by more than 20 percent. Dr. Boersma faults competition from fishermen, pollution in the form of oil dumped at sea, and climate change for the decline.

But while the Punta Tombo colony is shrinking, others farther north are growing. The penguins’ shifting range underscores how climate change isn’t always a drop-dead-from-the-heat affair. And it raises questions about how to protect threatened – and mobile – marine species as they adjust.

Changing weather patterns have shifted upwelling currents, the productive areas that support large anchovy schools, northward. On average, Punta Tombo penguins must now swim 25 miles farther for a meal – 50 miles total – compared with a decade ago. Some penguins have simply established new colonies closer to their food source, welcome evidence of their ability to adapt.

But the move also worries Boersma: At Punta Tombo, the penguins are protected. In their new colonies farther north, on private land, they’re not.
The aquatic birds’ exodus from a safe haven highlights a quandary presented by a changing world: How do people, with their landlubber bias, protect and manage marine ecosystems that, by definition, go with the flow?

“We set aside parts of the world as if it’s going to be static,” says Boersma, at the University of Washington, Seattle. “But the one thing that’s constant is change.”

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