Can Static Habitat Protection Encompass Critical Areas for Highly Mobile Marine Top Predators? Insights from Coastal East Africa
Along the East African coast, marine top predators are facing an increasing number of anthropogenic threats which requires the implementation of effective and urgent conservation measures to protect essential habitats. Understanding the role that habitat features play on the marine top predator’ distribution and abundance is a crucial step to evaluate the suitability of an existing Marine Protected Area (MPA), originally designated for the protection of coral reefs. We developed species distribution models (SDM) on the IUCN data deficient Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus) in southern Kenya. We followed a comprehensive ecological modelling approach to study the environmental factors influencing the occurrence and abundance of dolphins while developing SDMs. Through the combination of ensemble prediction maps, we defined recurrent, occasional and unfavourable habitats for the species. Our results showed the influence of dynamic and static predictors on the dolphins’ spatial ecology: dolphins may select shallow areas (5-30 m), close to the reefs (< 500 m) and oceanic fronts (< 10 km) and adjacent to the 100m isobath (< 5 km). We also predicted a significantly higher occurrence and abundance of dolphins within the MPA. Recurrent and occasional habitats were identified on large percentages on the existing MPA (47% and 57% using presence-absence and abundance models respectively). However, the MPA does not adequately encompass all occasional and recurrent areas and within this context, we propose to extend the MPA to incorporate all of them which are likely key habitats for the highly mobile species. The results from this study provide two key conservation and management tools: (i) an integrative habitat modelling approach to predict key marine habitats, and (ii) the first study evaluating the effectiveness of an existing MPA for marine mammals in the Western Indian Ocean.