Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab

Informing policy decisions based on movements of highly migratory marine animals: MiCO

On April 1 (no fooling!), MGEL and a consortium of over 50 partners launched the Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean (MiCO) system at a side event at a United Nations meeting in New York. The inter-governmental conference was the culmination of years of work by a preparatory committee to engage member nations in discussions for a new international legally binding instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). The side event was hosted by the Permanent Mission to the United Nations of Ecuador and the Comisión Permanente del Pacífico Sur (CPPS), and organized by UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre and Duke University, and attended by 60-70 delegates. [MGEL PhD Candidate Guillermo Ortuño Crespo attended the BBNJ negotiations and blogged about it here.]

Delegates gather at the UN side event “Connectivity: a critical consideration in global ocean
governance,” at which MGEL’s Dr. Dunn presented on MiCO.

MiCO addresses one specific aspect of the ongoing negotiations – connectivity between national waters and areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) based on movements of highly migratory marine animals. Hundreds of species swim or fly across invisible “boundaries” in the ocean, sometimes traveling thousands of miles to reach rich winter foraging areas, warm summer breeding grounds, or for sea turtles long ago departed nesting beaches – these great ocean wanderers leave as hatchlings and do not return until fully mature some 20 years later. Along the way these animals, now more than ever, are likely to encounter threats created by people: by-catch from fisheries, pollution from land and ships, oil spills, noise, ship strikes. Understanding the geographic connections between life stages and activities of these animals is imperative for making informed policy decisions for the sustainable use and conservation of the species, of the high seas, and of the waters of all nations.

By aggregating existing data from researchers, MiCO shows where these high use areas (nodes) occur as well as the paths that the animals travel among them (corridors).  Users can overlay multiple species or can query the system based on a specific country’s EEZ, a specific species, even (if known) attributes about a species like age class, sex, or population. Currently the prototype system hosts 21 nodes and 17 corridors for seven species, based on analyses of tracks from telemetry data of 357 animals from 61 datasets provided by 33 contributing partners… and growing! Nodes and corridors are generated from kernel density estimates of segmented tracks that have been normalized in time (to avoid biases) and modeled to estimate their likely true locations, as satellite tags on animals are inherently erroneous. You can read more on the methods here.

A parallel literature review effort is helping to summarize what knowledge exists about migratory connectivity based on five types of data: telemetry, mark and recapture, passive acoustics, stable isotope and genetics. Other next steps for the project include exploring how to incorporate data types other than telemetry, improving usability for policy makers, and exploring other visualization and analysis techniques such as network diagrams.

Development of MiCO has been supported through a grant to the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative from the International Climate Initiative of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. Interested in contributing data or learning more about the project? Visit or email