Study finds marine protected areas help coral reefs

May 09, 2018

Orono, Maine -- Reports in recent years that marine protected areas (MPAs) aren't effective in saving coral reefs from the damaging effects of global climate change have led some to argue that such expensive interventions are futile. But a study that spanned 700 kilometers of the eastern Caribbean reveals that MPAs can, indeed, help coral reefs.

Robert Steneck, a professor of marine biology at the University of Maine, has spent much of his 40-year career studying coral reefs. He led the team that conducted research on the leeward islands of the Caribbean and discovered that local reef protection efforts can work -- contradicting several previous studies.

The research was partially funded by the National Geographic Society.

Local fisheries management resulted in a 62 percent increase in the density of young corals, which improves the ecosystem's ability to recover from major impacts like hurricanes and coral bleaching, according to the team's findings, published in Science Advances, a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"MPAs can help coral reefs, but studies to the contrary just weren't measuring the right things at the right scales," says Steneck. "The idea behind MPAs is that, by reducing fishing pressure, you increase the number of seaweed-eating fish, and they decrease the amount of harmful seaweed, which makes it easier for baby corals to get started and thrive on the reef. But coral reefs are complicated, and lots of other things can affect fish numbers, their ability to control the growth of algae and the ability of corals to take advantage of this."

Taking field measurements on coral reefs is time consuming, so many researchers are forced to take shortcuts and use simple, widely available data to analyse how reefs respond to protection, says study co-author professor Peter Mumby from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at The University of Queensland, Australia.

"While it sounds obvious, we show that our ability to detect the benefits of MPAs on corals improves dramatically when you take more detailed measurements," Mumby says. "For example, a simple option is to count the number of herbivorous fishes. But if, instead, you estimate how intensively these fishes feed, you obtain a much clearer and compelling insight."

There is no management panacea for any ecosystem, and especially not for coral reefs, Steneck notes. "Certainly, stresses on reef corals from climate and atmospheric changes are serious and beyond direct management control. However, we suggest that local management measures can bolster the recovery of corals after damaging events and, eventually, improve their overall condition."

Doug Rasher of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science in East Boothbay, Maine, adds: "What we show is that relatively small changes can nudge this ecosystem toward one that can maintain and sustain itself."
-end-
The research team, which also included Chancey MacDonald of James Cook University and George Stoyle of RARE, Arlington, Virginia, concludes that the best way to measure the effectiveness of reef conservation is by using a suite of metrics, including the number of fish, amount of seaweed and the number of baby corals, rather than just one indicator of reef health.

About the University of Maine:

The University of Maine, founded in Orono in 1865, is the state's land grant and sea grant university. As Maine's flagship public university, UMaine has a statewide mission of teaching, research and economic development, and community service. UMaine is among the most comprehensive higher education institutions in the Northeast and attracts students from Maine and 49 other states, and 67 countries. It currently enrolls 11,240 total undergraduate and graduate students who can directly participate in groundbreaking research working with world-class scholars. The University of Maine offers 35 doctoral programs and master's degrees in 85 fields; more than 90 undergraduate majors and academic programs; and one of the oldest and most prestigious honors programs in the U.S. The university promotes environmental stewardship, with substantial efforts campuswide aimed at conserving energy, recycling and adhering to green building standards in new construction. For more information about UMaine, visit umaine.edu.

University of Maine

Related Coral Reefs Articles from Brightsurf:

The cement for coral reefs
Coral reefs are hotspots of biodiversity. As they can withstand heavy storms, they offer many species a safe home.

Palau's coral reefs: a jewel of the ocean
The latest report from the Living Oceans Foundation finds Palau's reefs had the highest coral cover observed on the Global Reef Expedition--the largest coral reef survey and mapping expedition in history.

Shedding light on coral reefs
New research published in the journal Coral Reefs generates the largest characterization of coral reef spectral data to date.

Uncovering the hidden life of 'dead' coral reefs
'Dead' coral rubble can support more animals than live coral, according to University of Queensland researchers trialling a high-tech sampling method.

Collaboration is key to rebuilding coral reefs
The most successful and cost-effective ways to restore coral reefs have been identified by an international group of scientists, after analyzing restoration projects in Latin America.

Coral reefs show resilience to rising temperatures
Rising ocean temperatures have devastated coral reefs all over the world, but a recent study in Global Change Biology has found that reefs in the Eastern Tropical Pacific region may prove to be an exception.

Genetics could help protect coral reefs from global warming
The research provides more evidence that genetic-sequencing can reveal evolutionary differences in reef-building corals that one day could help scientists identify which strains could adapt to warmer seas.

Tackling coral reefs' thorny problem
Researchers from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) have revealed the evolutionary history of the crown-of-thorns starfish -- a predator of coral that can devastate coral reefs.

The state of coral reefs in the Solomon Islands
The ''Global Reef Expedition: Solomon Islands Final Report'' summarizes the foundation's findings from a monumental research mission to study corals and reef fish in the Solomon Islands and provides recommendations on how to preserve these precious ecosystems into the future.

Mysterious glowing coral reefs are fighting to recover
A new study by the University of Southampton has revealed why some corals exhibit a dazzling colorful display, instead of turning white, when they suffer 'coral bleaching' -- a condition which can devastate reefs and is caused by ocean warming.

Read More: Coral Reefs News and Coral Reefs Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.