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New Fish and Wildlife Pathways Revealed in Gulf of Mexico Study

Nearly all “blueways” identified in Nature Conservancy report lack protection.

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Andrew Blejwas | 617.785.7047 |

Gulf of Mexico | September 15, 2016

A new report from The Nature Conservancy released today reveals previously undiscovered migratory highways, or “blueways” used by marine species in the Gulf of Mexico. The report confirms that the Gulf is one of the most important—yet vastly unprotected—migration areas on earth.

In total, four migratory “hotspots” used by turtles, fish, whales, manatees and birds have been identified.

“If we could peel back the surface of the Gulf, we would see heavily traveled marine pathways rivaling some of the Earth’s great terrestrial migration routes like the Serengeti,” said Bob Bendick, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Program. “While we have known for many years that billions of birds fly across and around the edge of the Gulf in the spring and fall, this report illustrates that a huge number of species migrate through its waters as well.”

This first-of-its-kind report maps the migratory pathways of more than two dozen species of interest and assessed the migratory areas in the Gulf of 26 species, including fish like the blue fin tuna and Atlantic tarpon, four sea turtles, two marine mammals such as sperm whale and West Indian manatee, and nine bird species like the whooping crane and wood thrush. All of these animals spend some or all of their time in the Gulf of Mexico and can travel as far as 4,000 miles in 80 days.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • There are four particularly significant migratory blueways:
    • Confluence of the Mississippi River and the Gulf
    • South Florida and the Florida Strait
    • The northern area of the Yucatan Peninsula
    • Northwestern Cuba
  • Blueways in the Gulf are vastly unprotected: More than 99 percent of the aquatic corridors and more than 80 percent of bird stopovers identified in the report lack any type of environmental protection. These areas are managed by the three countries that surround the Gulf: The United States, Mexico and Cuba.
  • Gulf species are constantly on the move: The report indicates that aquatic species, like birds, have extremely varied migration patterns. Fish migrate throughout the year, sea turtles primarily migrate in late spring and summer and marine mammals migrate primarily during the winter. This differs from bird species, which regularly migrate during the spring and fall.

Understanding the migratory pathways of marine animals and birds is critical not only to species survival, but also to the overall health of the Gulf of Mexico Large Marine Ecosystem. The Nature Conservancy took on this endeavor to motivate resource managers and other decision-makers to understand the threats to the migratory species and contribute to their conservation.

“Existing research shows that we don’t yet fully understand all of the factors that pose a threat to trans-Gulf migrations—but what we do know for certain is that very few of the areas within this incredible migratory network are protected,” said Dr. Jorge Brenner, the study’s lead scientist. “We hope this information will lead to further research and eventually, new conservation measures to protect this incredibly important marine ecosystem.”

More than 100 scientists from the United States, Mexico and Cuba contributed to the report, which also lists the many techniques researchers used to produce this never-before-seen look at migratory life in the Gulf. For instance, whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean, are commonly visible during the summer off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and the offshore banks in the Louisiana-Texas continental shelf. However, their complete migration route has, until recently, been a mystery. Researchers from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the University of Southern Mississippi, and the National Commission of Protected Areas in Mexico (CONANP) were able to outfit these large, slow-moving filter feeders with electronic devices that recorded the entire migratory journey through the Gulf.

This report marks the study’s first phase. Subsequent research will involve additional assessments to identify key important areas, and the tagging and tracking of some marine animals in the southern Gulf and other areas, where researchers have very little data about what exists under the surface.

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the web at To learn about the Conservancy’s global initiatives, visit To keep up with current Conservancy news, follow @nature_press on Twitter.



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