DURHAM, N.C. – The Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean (MiCO) system, an online open-access global database that maps the movements of sea turtles, whales, sea birds and other migratory species through the open ocean, has been awarded the 2020 Innovation Award by the Ocean Awards program.

MiCO was developed at the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, in partnership with more than 50 other institutions worldwide.

The system has already been used by agencies such as the United Nations Environment Programme and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to guide conservation and policy initiatives. It also is being used to inform ongoing negotiations for a new High Seas treaty under the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea.

The Oceans Awards are presented annually by BOAT International in partnership with the Blue Marine Foundation. The prestigious Innovation Award is presented to an individual, company or group that has introduced new measures, practices or technologies to reduce stress on the oceans and improve ocean health.

The MiCO system fits that bill by putting a world of useful mapping data – in an accessible, easy-to-use format – into the hands of managers, conservation groups and policymakers.

“The ocean basin-scale migrations of sea turtles, marine mammals, seabirds and fish expose them to multiple stresses and governance regimes. Understanding how these species use the ocean, and when and where their migrations will take them, is crucial for their conservation,” said Patrick N. Halpin, director of the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab (MGEL).

To illustrate the scope of the problem, he noted that 63% of all assessed subpopulations of sea turtles are now listed as near-threatened or threatened; the same is true for 95% of albatross and 87% of assessed migratory shark species. Migratory fish suffer twice the rate of overfishing if they inhabit more than one national jurisdiction.

While the amount of data describing migratory movements of these and other marine species is growing, much of it remains buried in scientific literature or is available only through databases so large and complicated that most managers can’t use them, he said. This has created a bottleneck in the delivery of critical ecological knowledge that hinders effective planning and conservation and undercuts the accuracy of environmental impact assessments.

MiCO unlocks the bottleneck by collecting and analyzing huge amounts of data on migratory species from researchers and science journals worldwide and then organizing it into a searchable database that environmental managers, policymakers, conservation NGOs, industry groups and other scientists can easily access and use.

“This new tool provides actionable insights on the migration patterns and movements of marine wildlife, acting like a force multiplier for researchers’ data to inform conservation efforts and sustainable use of oceans worldwide,” said Daniel Dunn, of the University of Queensland and MGEL.

Dunn developed the MiCO prototype platform with Autumn-Lynn Harrison of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and a team of 71 other international researchers.  

Since its launch at the United Nations during the 2019 Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, the system has analyzed the tagging data of 400 animals migrating through 17 migratory “corridors” in about 100,000 locations across 55 countries. An ongoing literature review has already provided information on a further 133 connections between 109 nodes. When it is published later this year, that review will make information on migratory connectivity from more than 1,200 publications freely available online.

You can learn more about the MiCO system here.