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World class protection boosts Great Barrier Reef

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is showing an extraordinary range of benefits from the network of protected marine reserves introduced there five years ago, according to a comprehensive new study published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences.

The scientific team, a ‘who’s-who’ of Australian coral reef researchers, describe the findings as “a globally significant demonstration of the effectiveness of large-scale networks of marine reserves”.

“Our data show rapid increases of fish and sharks inside no-take reserves, in both reef and non-reef habitats,” says Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, speaking today at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences meeting in San Diego, California.

“Critically, the reserves also benefit overall ecosystem health and resilience”, says lead author Dr Laurence McCook of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

“Outbreaks of coral-eating, crown-of-thorns starfish are less frequent on no-take reefs, which consequently have a higher abundance of healthy corals after outbreaks.

“In concert with other measures, the reserve network is also helping the plight of threatened species like dugongs and marine turtles”, says Dr McCook. 

“There is now very strong evidence that no-take zones benefit fish populations within those zones. The numbers of coral trout doubled on some reefs within two years of closure to fishing,” the researchers say.

Larger, more mobile species, such as sharks, have been slower to recover than residential fishes, but nevertheless show strong signs of recovery in no-entry zones of the GBR: grey reef sharks are 30 times more abundant on no-entry reefs compared with fished reefs.  The researchers predict that as protected fish inside no-take areas grow larger and larger, they will contribute many more larvae to the whole ecosystem. Therefore, the benefits of no-take areas are expected to extend far beyond the no-take boundaries, replenishing surrounding areas that are open to fishing.

Overall, the team concluded: “With 32% of GBR reef area in no-take reefs, and fish densities about two times greater on those reefs, fish populations across the ecosystem have increased considerably.”

However the team cautioned that there was evidence of some poaching taking place in no-take zones, because no-entry zones had even more fish than no-take areas.

The researchers say that preliminary economic analysis points to considerable net benefits, both to the environment and to tourism, fishing and related enterprises.

“Relative to the revenue generated by Great Barrier Reef industries, current expenditure on protection is minor,” they added.

“Given the major threat posed by climate change, the expanded network of marine reserves provides a critical and cost-effective contribution to enhancing the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef,” the scientists comment.

“In summary, the network of marine reserves on the GBR has brought major, sustained ecological benefits, including enhanced populations of target fish and sharks.

“Overall, the results demonstrate that the large-scale network of marine reserves on the GBR is proving to be an excellent investment - in social, economic and environmental terms,” they conclude.

Their paper “Adaptive management of the Great Barrier Reef: a globally significant demonstration of the benefits of a network of marine reserves” by Laurence J. McCook, Tony Ayling, Mike Cappo, J. Howard Choat, Richard D.Evans, Debora M. De Freitas, Michelle Heupel, Terry P. Hughes, Geoffrey P.Jones, Bruce Mapstone, Helene Marsh, Morena Mills, Fergus Molloy, C.Roland Pitcher, Robert L. Pressey, Garry R. Russ, Stephen Sutton, Hugh
Sweatman, Renae Tobin, David R. Wachenfeld and David H. Williamson is in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The authors are affiliated with the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and James Cook University.

More information:
Dr Laurence McCook, CoECRS and GBRMPA, +61 (0)7 4750-0787 or +61 (0) 408 804 765
Professor Terry Hughes, CoECRS and JCU, +61 (0) 400 720 164 (USA Pacific time zone)
Jenny Lappin, CoECRS, +61 (0)7 4781 4222
Jim O’Brien, James Cook University Media Office, +61 (0)7 4781 4822 or 0418 892449

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