Marine reserves give reefs a fighting chance against climate change

(Credit: iStockphoto/Edwin Van Wier)

New research suggests that closing reef areas to fishing can delay the effects of one of their biggest threats: climate change. Such ocean “parks” may give reefs a fighting chance.

Coral reefs are complex, living structures. It is their complexity that allows an extraordinarily diverse community of organisms to live within a reef ecosystem. However, these fragile environments are threatened by increased water temperatures, ocean acidification, overfishing, coastal development, and other human activities.

Currently, about 2% of the world’s reefs are protected from human activity such as overfishing. As temperatures continue to rise and ocean chemistry changes, climate change poses a risk to all reefs.

However, scientists at the University of Exeter in the U.K. found that on reefs protected from fishing, fish graze off harmful algae that would otherwise cover coral and stress it, leaving it vulnerable to other stresses like warming water or pollution. Research in the Bahamas suggests that, within reserves, corals can recover from stress and continue growing and spreading.

“In order to protect reefs in the long-term we need radical action to reduce CO2 emissions,” says study director, professor Peter Mumby. “However, our research shows that local action to reduce the effects of fishing can contribute meaningfully to the fate of reefs.”

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Tara Duffy, Blue Ocean Institute Graduate Intern, Stony Brook University

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