STUDY: Coral Reefs Show Best Chance for Recovery When in Well Managed Local Marine Protected Areas and Fisheries

April 16, 2020

Arlington, Va. (April 16, 2020) – A new study co-authored for Science by Jack Kittinger, Senior Director of the Global Fisheries and Aquaculture Program at Conservation International, finds that coral reefs facing less fishing pressure and that are located away from human populations see the greatest chance at recovery. Reefs facing intense human impacts rebound more slowly.

Researchers examined the success rates of marine protected areas and fishing restrictions in the context of reef size, location and the degree to which local communities rely on them for food and economic livelihood. The study assessed 1,800 tropical coral reef sites in the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic ocean basins across 41 countries, states and territories.

“There are 6 million reef fishers in 99 countries and territories worldwide. Protecting reefs for both biodiversity and food security functions is vital,” said Kittinger. “It’s been well documented that humans have a huge impact on reefs globally whether that’s overfishing, pollution. This new research helps us identify which conservation strategies are best for a particular reef and the communities that depend on them.”

To understand the benefits to coral reefs associated with various solutions, the authors assembled a global database of reef biodiversity, fisheries abundance, and ecological functions.

Key findings include:

  • Existing levels of human pressures have a strong impact on whether locally managed marine protected areas (MPAs) and fisheries restrictions can help reefs meet key conservation goals;
  • In areas with low to medium human impacts, the biggest conservation gains can be realized by implementing no-take marine protected areas;
  • In highly impacted areas, conservation gains are likely to be minimal, no matter what approach is implemented – these reefs are going to be the hardest to recover;
  • Intensively fished reefs in general failed to achieve conservation targets because of the intense level of human pressure, leading the authors to suggest that we should temper our expectations of the conservation gains for no-take zones in highly impacted reefs;
  • Local management of MPAs and restricted fisheries that leverage best practices are the best conservation tools for most communities to increase reef resilience.
  • International action on climate change is needed for coral reefs but their long-term sustainability is dependent on effective local management.

As international policymakers work to finalize a framework to establish new biodiversity targets that includes a global proposal for protecting 30% of land and sea in the next decade, the results of this study could help governments prioritize effective strategies in support of marine conservation goals.

“The findings tell us that high ambition targets aiming to improve the health and sustainability of MPAs matter,” said Kittinger. “It’s also extremely important to take local context and human pressure into consideration when establishing marine protected areas and fisheries management practices. The right protection strategies applied in the right locations will lead to more effective outcomes overall.”

In addition to this study, Conservation International has performed extensive research highlighting the benefits of MPAs for the health of oceans and marine life, most recently in Science Advances where Lee Hannah and co-authors contributed to eight guidelines to support the creation of a global network of MPAs to respond to climate change impacts.

About Conservation International

Conservation International works to protect the critical benefits that nature provides to people. Through science, partnerships and fieldwork, Conservation International is driving innovation and investments in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, supporting protections for critical habitats, and fostering economic development that is grounded in the conservation of nature.  We work in 30 countries around the world, empowering societies at all levels to create a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable planet. Follow Conservation International's work on Conservation NewsFacebookTwitter, Instagram and YouTube.