CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have called for the protection of Caribbean coral reefs, known as supersites, in order to undo the environmental and economic harm inflicted by overfishing.
The report, published in the March 1 issue of Science Advances, noted that up to 90 percent of predatory fish is gone from Caribbean coral reefs, straining the ocean ecosystem and coastal economy.
The research, led by former UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student Abel Valdivia working with John Bruno, a marine biologist at UNC College of Arts & Sciences, suggests that these supersites — reefs with many nooks and crannies on their surfaces that act as hiding places for prey (and attract predators) — should be prioritized for protection and could serve as regional models showcasing the value of biodiversity for tourism and other uses.
Other features that make a supersite are amount of available food, size of reef and proximity to mangroves. On land, a supersite would be a national park like Yellowstone, which naturally supports an abundance of varied wildlife and has been protected by the federal government,” Bruno said.
The team surveyed 39 reefs across the Bahamas, Cuba, Florida, Mexico and Belize, both inside and outside marine reserves, to determine how much fish had been lost by comparing fish biomass on pristine sites to fish biomass on a typical reef. They estimated the biomass in each location and found that 90 percent of predatory fish were gone due to overfishing.
But the scientists found a ray of hope in that a small number of reef locations, if protected, could substantially contribute to the recovery of predatory fish populations and help restore depleted species.
“Some features have a surprisingly large effect on how many predators a reef can support,” said Courtney Ellen Cox, a co-author and former UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral student now at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
The report stated that, not long ago, large fish were plentiful on coral reefs but are now largely absent due to targeted fishing.
“Today, predators are larger and more abundant within the marine reserves than on unprotected, overfished reefs. But, even some of the marine reserves have seen striking declines, largely due to lack of enforcement of fishing regulations.
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