Marine reserves aid population recovery of coral trout following tropical cyclones

With the frequency of climatic disturbance events set to increase in the future due to climate change, researching how to protect delicate ecosystems such as those built around coral reefs is becoming more important. Michael Emslie and his team from the Australian Institute of Marine Science have been looking at how no-take marine reserves (NTMR) are coping with tropical cyclones.

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Looking at surveys from 1983-2012 the team were able to see how NTMRs have expanded over the years. Now a total of 40% of the Great Barrier Marine Park consists of a network of NTMRs spanning over 2000km. These are vital to the survival of important fishery species such as the coral trout, the population numbers inside NTMRs can be double that of areas where fishing is allowed and these can act as fishery reserves.

 

Cyclones cause widespread degradation in coral reef habitats and can be devastating for population density of coral trout, which can severely reduce catch rates for surrounding fisheries. A large cyclone in 2009 saw a 50% reduction in hard coral cover across the marine park, this loss of shelter and reduced prey abundance forced fish to relocate to deeper waters and population numbers plummeted.

Once intricate coral reef structures can be completely destroyed following storms

Once intricate coral reef structures can be completely destroyed following storms

Although both NTMRs and fished areas were equally affected, recovery was vastly different. Coral trout in the NTMR were typically larger meaning they were better able to cope and could spawn more successfully resulting in a faster population recovery. Through fish spillover and larvae dispersal the fishery stocks were gradually replenished outside the protected areas.

With more severe weather events predicted for the future this insight could be vital. No-take zones not only protect the fish themselves they protect the fisheries as well and allow for a speedier recovery from population declines, enhancing resilience to cyclones.

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Reference: Emslie et al., Expectations and Outcomes of Reserve Network Performance following Re-zoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Current Biology (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.01.073

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Madeleine Berry

Wildlife enthusiast and recent Biology graduate of Queen Mary, University of London.

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