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Banning fishing has helped parts of the Great Barrier Reef recover from damage

Pristine coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo copyright Tom Bridge, Author provided

Banning fishing has helped parts of the Great Barrier Reef recover from damage

The world’s coral reefs face unprecedented threats. Their survival depends on how well they can cope with a long list of pressures including fishing, storms, coral bleaching, outbreaks of coral predators and reduced water quality. Together, these disturbances have caused the Great Barrier Reef to lose half of its coral cover since 1985.

One often-used way of protecting marine ecosystems is to close parts of the ocean to fishing, in no-take marine reserves. From research, we know that by reducing fishing you end up with more and bigger fish (and other harvested species such as lobsters).

But other benefits of protection might be more surprising. In a new study, we show that no-take reserves helped the Great Barrier Reef’s corals to resist a range of disturbances, such as bleaching, disease and crown-of-thorns starfish, and to recover more quickly from damage.

More exposure, but better protection

Our study used observations between 1993 and 2013 of 34 types of coral and invertebrates and 215 fish species on 46 reefs spread across the Great Barrier Reef. Among the 46 study reefs, 26 were open to fishing and 20 were in no-take marine reserves.

During the study period, several occurrences of coral bleaching, coral disease, storms and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish were recorded.

The total number of disturbances affecting our study reefs increased in recent years (2010-12), mostly due to severe storms affecting the central and southern sections of the Great Barrier Reef. Among our study reefs, those located inside no-take marine reserves were more exposed to disturbance than those outside no-take marine reserves.

Our study showed that, inside no-take marine reserves, the impact of disturbance was reduced by 38% for fish and by 25% for corals compared with unprotected reefs. This means that no-take marine reserves benefit not only fish but entire reef communities, including corals, and might help to slow down the rapid degradation of coral reefs.

Damaged coral reef around Lizard Island a few days after cyclone Ita. Photo by Tom Bridge, www.tethys-images.com

Faster recovery

In addition to greater resistance, reef organisms recovered more quickly from disturbance inside no-take marine reserves. After each disturbance, we measured the time that both coral and fish communities took to return to their pre-disturbance state.

We found coral communities took the longest to recover after crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks. Outside no-take marine reserves, it took on average nine years for these communities to recover. It took just over six years inside no-take marine reserves.

Although there is more work to be done, one reason that reefs inside no-take zones are able to cope better with disturbances is that they preserve and promote a wider range of important ecological functions. Where fishing reduces the numbers of some species outside protected areas, some of these functions could be lost.

Coral reef showing signs of recovery. Photo copyright Tom Bridge/www.tethys-images.com

Knowledge for conservation

Marine reserves (including no-take zones) currently cover 3.4% of the world’s ocean, which is still well below the 10% target for 2020 recommended by the Convention on Biological Diversity. The slow progress towards this target is partly due to the perceived high costs of protection compared to true ecological benefits, which can be difficult to gauge. While some surprising benefits are beginning to be revealed in studies like ours, such benefits remain little understood.

Our results help to fill that gap by showing that no-take marine reserves can boost both the resistance and recovery of reef communities following disturbance. In ecology, resistance plus recovery equals resilience.

Our work suggests that the net benefit of no-take marine reserves is much greater than previously thought. No-take marine reserves host not only more and bigger fishes, but more resilient communities that might decline at slower rates.

These results reinforce the idea that no-take marine reserves should be widely implemented and supported as a means of maintaining the integrity of coral reefs globally.

Our conclusions also demonstrate that we need long-term monitoring programs which provide a unique opportunity to assess the sustained benefits of protection.