A global study has identified 15 areas worldwide which have the potential to guide the conservation of coral reefs. Optimism abounds because these reefs exist in countries with big populations which exert significant strain on resources.
In recent times, the focus on coral reefs has increased due in part to the diminishment of one of Earth’s biggest reefs, the Great Barrier Reef. The factors believed to be involved in this are related to the warmth and acidity of the oceans. These are likely a result of global warming, increasing carbon dioxide, pollution, over fishing and disturbance of reef habitats. Globally, coral reefs require strategies to preserve them to be significantly improved. Lending ideas from human health and agricultural development; a new approach involves identifying unique locations of coral reef where conditions are far better or far below par than expected.
Using this approach, a new study by 34 different conservation groups and universities worldwide examined these “outlier” reefs. 6000 reef surveys were carried out in 46 countries, one of the largest studies of its kind. The team discovered locations described as “bright spots” locations possessing reefs where fish populations were far higher than expected, despite the populations and environmental conditions. “Given the widespread depletion of coral reef fisheries globally we were excited to find these bright spots doing much better than anticipated,” said lead author Josh Cinner from the ARC centre for Coral Reef studies at James Cook University. “To be clear ‘bright spots’ are far from pristine reefs but rather reefs which have more fish than expected.”
The important finding was; bright spots prevail in places where the use of local resources is high, therefore these locations may represent an insight into how certain practices resist detrimental ecological change. The identified locations are far from untouched by man yet the coral reefs display true signs of health, relative to other locations with similar practices or culture. The 15 bright spots were found predominantly in the Pacific Ocean, the Solomon Islands, some islands of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati. On the other hand, 35 dark spots were found where biomass levels were considerably reduced from the background global average rate. Likewise, these areas were far from associated with high population and over extensive fishing, being observed in remote and uninhabited places which many may consider to be pristine. Dark spots were found around the globe and in every major ocean basin. Dr Hicks commented, “Dark spots also had a few defining characteristics; they were subject to intensive netting activities and had access to freezers allowing fishermen to stockpile fish to send to the market.”
The team suggested possible reasons why these differences existed. “Many bright spots had strong local involvement in how the reefs were managed, local ownership rights and traditional management practices,” says co-author Dr. Christina Hicks. “Conversely, dark spots may highlight developmental or management pathways to steer clear from.” The team believe their discovery offers the potential to develop exciting new solutions for coral reef conservation. “Specifically, investments which foster local involvement and provide people with ownership rights which may allow people to develop creative solutions which help defy expectations of reef fisheries depletion,” says Dr Hicks.
To further elucidate the protective factors involved, local experts were asked about the social, economic and environmental factors commonplace in their region. Bright spots were characterised by strong cultural attitudes towards conservation, high levels of local management, dependence upon the marine ecosystem and beneficial conditions like deep water reefs. “Importantly, the bright spots had a few things in common, which if applied to other places, might [support and] promote better reef conditions.” said Hicks.
Lessons may also be learnt from the dark spots which were characterised by intensive capture of fish and more advanced storage technologies, combined with recent adverse environmental events. Optimism prevails since the results suggest fisheries’ governance may undoubtedly reduce reef degradation. “The team believe their discovery offers the potential to develop exciting new solutions for coral reef conservation,” Says Professor Cinner.
What may foster the development of coral reefs and fish populations?