Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Marine Parks Don’t Protect Diversity

Most of the evolutionary diversity of corals and fish is not currently supported by the world’s network of marine protected areas, prompting marine scientists to call for a rethink of how marine protected areas are planned and coordinated.

Researchers from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University analysed the extent to which the evolutionary histories of corals and fishes are protected, rather than looking at individual species. “Our interest was in evolutionary branches of the tree of life, rather than the traditional focus on rare, threatened or endemic species,” said Prof David Bellwood of the Coral CoE. “In particular we were interested in the longer branches, which represent the greater proportion of evolutionary history.

“When we looked at tropical Marine Protected Areas from that perspective, we found that protection of corals and fishes falls significantly short of the minimum conservation target of protecting 10% of their geographic ranges. Just one-sixteenth of hard coral species are afforded that minimum level of protection, and for fishes – the wrasses – less than a quarter reach minimum protection levels.”

Bellwood said that while it was still useful to focus on the conservation of rare, threatened and endemic species, planning protected areas around evolutionary history helped to provide a deeper perspective. “It is not just species that need protection but the genetic history that they contain. In a changing world this evolutionary diversity is likely to be increasingly important as reefs respond to new challenges.”

The researchers found that the shortfall in protection for corals was greatest in the Atlantic and the Eastern Pacific. For fishes, the highest concentrations of poor protection are in the Western Indian Ocean and the Central Pacific.

“Even though our estimates are highly conservative, the inescapable conclusion is that most evolutionary branches of the tree of life on coral reefs are inadequately protected by the current system of Marine Protected Areas,” Bellwood said.

The research was published in Nature Communications (www.tinyurl.com/jhn4ve9).