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Understanding Coral Reef Connectivity Important to Focus Conservation Efforts

January 31, 2022, 5:45 PM HST
* Updated January 31, 5:49 PM
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Local fisheries and their associated biodiversity benefit from the transfer of larvae between reefs, with some benefitting more than others, prompting recommendations to protect larval connectivity among coral reefs.

A team of international researchers, led in part by the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, emphasize that coral reef connectivity is crucial to supporting the benefits coral reefs provide. Their study is published in Science.

“Scientists have known for decades that larval connectivity is critical for maintaining fish and invertebrate populations in the ocean, but this study shows that whether a reef is a sink, source or a corridor for larvae can clearly influence effectiveness of a conservation area,” said study co-author Elizabeth Madin, an assistant researcher at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology.

Researchers identified significant gaps and opportunities for positioning marine protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures strategically on coral reefs.

The findings indicate fundamental differences in the relative importance of coral reefs’ connectivity characteristics and their role in maintaining biodiversity and supporting local fisheries. That’s according to the study’s lead author, Luisa Fontoura, a postdoctoral researcher from Macquarie University’s School of Natural Sciences in Australia and recently-graduated doctoral student; and Madin.

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The global-scale research indicates that reefs receiving larvae from highly interconnected larval dispersal corridors harbor a greater number of fish species.

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Reefs primarily serving as larval “sinks,” where larvae end up after traveling on ocean currents, contain roughly twice as much biomass as larval “sources,” or the reefs where those larvae originate. When protected, these sink reefs are more resilient to human pressure.

By identifying the distinct, yet complementary, roles that sinks, sources and dispersal corridors play on ecosystem services — as measured by fish species and biomass — an informed decision can be made about where marine protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures should be located to maximize biodiversity persistence and fisheries benefits.

By combining ocean current movement and the biological characteristics of larvae, ocean biophysical models were used to model fish larval dispersal throughout coral reefs around the world. Even though these methods have been widely used in marine ecology and conservation, this study was the first to simulate coral reef larval connectivity at this spatial scale and resolution and for four distinct fish groups with contrasting life-histories.

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“On coral reefs, different types of fish species may contribute to different ecosystem services — for example, whereas large, carnivorous fish with a relatively short spawning season may make a substantial contribution to local fisheries, small reef fishes that reproduce more frequently during the year are responsible for much of the stunning fish diversity we observe on healthy coral reefs,” said Fontoura.

In this study, one of the novelties is the combination of spatial information on larval dispersal networks and human pressure levels to test the importance of connectivity characteristics for supporting ecosystem services. Study results support the importance of larval source-sink systems for local fisheries persistence.

However, this new research demonstrates that the greater potential of larval sinks to contribute to local fisheries varies by management level and human pressure. Identifying larval sinks can be helpful in identifying other effective area-based conservation measures’ “sweet spots” aimed at local fisheries subsistence, but fishing restrictions remain necessary to protect the role these locations play in providing fisheries benefits to local coastal populations.

Despite their importance, 70% of coral reefs classified by this study as functionally important for biodiversity and fisheries conservation are not protected. The study proposes a science-based, policy-relevant framework that incorporates coral reef connectivity characteristics in the strategic placement of future marine protected areas.

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