REVIEW: On the Front Line: frontal zones as priority at‐sea conservation areas for mobile marine vertebrates
Summary 1. Identifying priority areas for marine vertebrate conservation is complex because species of conservation concern are highly mobile, inhabit dynamic habitats and are difficult to monitor. 2. Many marine vertebrates are known to associate with oceanographic fronts – physical interfaces at the transition between water masses – for foraging and migration, making them important candidate sites for conservation. Here, we review associations between marine vertebrates and fronts and how they vary with scale, regional oceanography and foraging ecology. 3. Accessibility, spatiotemporal predictability and relative productivity of front-associated foraging habitats are key aspects of their ecological importance. Predictable mesoscale (10s– 100s km) regions of persistent frontal activity (‘frontal zones’) are particularly significant. 4. Frontal zones are hotspots of overlap between critical habitat and spatially explicit anthropogenic threats, such as the concentration of fisheries activity. As such, they represent tractable conservation units, in which to target measures for threat mitigation. 5. Front mapping via Earth observation (EO) remote sensing facilitates identification and monitoring of these hotspots of vulnerability. Seasonal or climatological products can locate biophysical hotspots, while near-real-time front mapping augments the suite of tools supporting spatially dynamic ocean management. 6. Synthesis and applications. Frontal zones are ecologically important for mobile marine vertebrates. We surmise that relative accessibility, predictability and productivity are key biophysical characteristics of ecologically significant frontal zones in contrasting oceanographic regions. Persistent frontal zones are potential priority conservation areas for multiple marine vertebrate taxa and are easily identifiable through front mapping via EO remote sensing. These insights are useful for marine spatial planning and marine biodiversity conservation, both within Exclusive Economic Zones and in the open oceans.