Research Article: Large-Scale Assessment of Mediterranean Marine Protected Areas Effects on Fish Assemblages

Date Published: April 16, 2014

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Paolo Guidetti, Pasquale Baiata, Enric Ballesteros, Antonio Di Franco, Bernat Hereu, Enrique Macpherson, Fiorenza Micheli, Antonio Pais, Pieraugusto Panzalis, Andrew A. Rosenberg, Mikel Zabala, Enric Sala, Brian R. MacKenzie.


Marine protected areas (MPAs) were acknowledged globally as effective tools to mitigate the threats to oceans caused by fishing. Several studies assessed the effectiveness of individual MPAs in protecting fish assemblages, but regional assessments of multiple MPAs are scarce. Moreover, empirical evidence on the role of MPAs in contrasting the propagation of non-indigenous-species (NIS) and thermophilic species (ThS) is missing. We simultaneously investigated here the role of MPAs in reversing the effects of overfishing and in limiting the spread of NIS and ThS. The Mediterranean Sea was selected as study area as it is a region where 1) MPAs are numerous, 2) fishing has affected species and ecosystems, and 3) the arrival of NIS and the northward expansion of ThS took place. Fish surveys were done in well-enforced no-take MPAs (HP), partially-protected MPAs (IP) and fished areas (F) at 30 locations across the Mediterranean. Significantly higher fish biomass was found in HP compared to IP MPAs and F. Along a recovery trajectory from F to HP MPAs, IP were similar to F, showing that just well enforced MPAs triggers an effective recovery. Within HP MPAs, trophic structure of fish assemblages resembled a top-heavy biomass pyramid. Although the functional structure of fish assemblages was consistent among HP MPAs, species driving the recovery in HP MPAs differed among locations: this suggests that the recovery trajectories in HP MPAs are likely to be functionally similar (i.e., represented by predictable changes in trophic groups, especially fish predators), but the specific composition of the resulting assemblages may depend on local conditions. Our study did not show any effect of MPAs on NIS and ThS. These results may help provide more robust expectations, at proper regional scale, about the effects of new MPAs that may be established in the Mediterranean Sea and other ecoregions worldwide.

Partial Text

Oceans worldwide are threatened by a combination of local direct impacts (e.g. fishing, pollution, sedimentation, coastal development) and diffuse global impacts (i.e. climate change) [1]. These stressors affect not only species and ecological communities [2], but also ecosystem functioning and the capacity of ecosystems to provide essential goods and services to society [3]. In particular, fishing significantly reduces density and biomass of target species; it selectively removes large-sized individuals (locally reducing reproductive potential of stocks), it causes dramatic changes in the structures and functioning of food webs [4], [5], and in the physical properties of seafloor [6], and it may decrease the resilience of populations and ecosystems in the face of climatic impacts and other disturbances [5], [7].

No difference in rugosity was highlighted among different levels of protection (pseudo-f = 0.21, p = 0.80, Fig. S1), while significant variability was recorded both at the scale of sites (pseudo-f = 6.40, p<0.001) and stations (pseudo-f = 1.66, p p<0.001). Our region-wide survey of Mediterranean rocky reef fish assemblages clearly shows significantly higher fish biomass in no-take MPAs relative to partially-protected MPAs and open access fishing areas. Partially-protected MPAs are closer to open access fishing areas along the recovery trajectory from unprotected areas to HP MPAs. These findings are generally consistent with the evidence arising from previous field studies dealing with single MPAs [22], [44] or meta-analyses using data from multiple MPAs [4], [21], [33]. This is, however, the first field study showing MPA effects on fish at this large scale and using consistent methods and design. Thus these findings obtained in a field study highlight the generality of the effects of protection on reef fish assemblages, over spatial scales not addressed before. Importantly, we found that a high degree of protection (no or minimal fishing) always resulted in increased fish biomass and in the density of carnivores and apex predators. Previous idiosyncratic results of studies from MPAs are likely due to variable levels of protection of the focal locations.   Source: