Research Article: Size, age, and habitat determine effectiveness of Palau’s Marine Protected Areas

Date Published: March 30, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Alan M. Friedlander, Yimnang Golbuu, Enric Ballesteros, Jennifer E. Caselle, Marine Gouezo, Dawnette Olsudong, Enric Sala, Heather M. Patterson.


Palau has a rich heritage of conservation that has evolved from the traditional moratoria on fishing, or “bul”, to more western Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), while still retaining elements of customary management and tenure. In 2003, the Palau Protected Areas Network (PAN) was created to conserve Palau’s unique biodiversity and culture, and is the country’s mechanism for achieving the goals of the Micronesia Challenge (MC), an initiative to conserve ≥30% of near-shore marine resources within the region by 2020. The PAN comprises a network of numerous MPAs within Palau that vary in age, size, level of management, and habitat, which provide an excellent opportunity to test hypotheses concerning MPA design and function using multiple discreet sampling units. Our sampling design provided a robust space for time comparison to evaluate the relative influence of potential drivers of MPA efficacy. Our results showed that no-take MPAs had, on average, nearly twice the biomass of resource fishes (i.e. those important commercially, culturally, or for subsistence) compared to nearby unprotected areas. Biomass of non-resource fishes showed no differences between no-take areas and areas open to fishing. The most striking difference between no-take MPAs and unprotected areas was the more than 5-fold greater biomass of piscivorous fishes in the MPAs compared to fished areas. The most important determinates of no-take MPA success in conserving resource fish biomass were MPA size and years of protection. Habitat and distance from shore had little effect on resource fish biomass. The extensive network of MPAs in Palau likely provides important conservation and tourism benefits to the Republic, and may also provide fisheries benefits by protecting spawning aggregation sites, and potentially through adult spillover.

Partial Text

Palau has a rich tradition of fisheries management and stewardship of its waters [1–4]. Traditionally, Palau had strong community control that closed areas to fishing through implementation of traditional moratoria on fishing, or “bul”, prohibiting all use for a restricted period, but usually not indefinitely [5–7]. This localized adaptive management was based on customary knowledge and practices, and was responsive to changes in resource abundance [1].

The majority of the no-take MPAs in Palau surveyed during our expedition are effective in conserving resource fish biomass relative to adjacent fished sites. Resource fish biomass in Ngemelis and Ebiil (> 3 t ha-1) are comparable to that of pristine sites elsewhere in the Pacific [60–61]. The most striking difference in trophic structure between MPAs and fished areas was in the biomass of top predators (sharks, jacks, and groupers), which was 5 times larger in the MPAs compared to open areas. MPA size, and to a slightly lesser extent, age explained most of the variation in fish assemblage structure, particularly for piscivores, which are a major target of the local fisheries. Larger MPAs contain a greater amount and diversity of habitats, and have been shown to possess more and larger resource fishes compared with smaller MPAs [35, 45, 48]. The life history characteristics of coral reef fishes, especially for many large-bodied predators, are such that long-term (> 10 years) protection is necessary for fully recovery of populations [36, 46–48]. Several of the MPAs assessed in this study were specifically designed to protect these predator species, especially grouper spawning aggregations, which are particularly susceptible to overfishing [12, 62].




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