Research Article: Small Marine Protected Areas in Fiji Provide Refuge for Reef Fish Assemblages, Feeding Groups, and Corals

Date Published: January 25, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Roberta M. Bonaldo, Mathias M. Pires, Paulo Roberto Guimarães, Andrew S. Hoey, Mark E. Hay, Sebastian C. A. Ferse.


The establishment of no-take marine protected areas (MPAs) on coral reefs is a common management strategy for conserving the diversity, abundance, and biomass of reef organisms. Generally, well-managed and enforced MPAs can increase or maintain the diversity and function of the enclosed coral reef, with some of the benefits extending to adjacent non-protected reefs. A fundamental question in coral reef conservation is whether these benefits arise within small MPAs (<1 km2), because larval input of reef organisms is largely decoupled from local adult reproduction. We examined the structure of fish assemblages, composition of fish feeding groups, benthic cover, and key ecosystem processes (grazing, macroalgal browsing, and coral replenishment) in three small (0.5–0.8 km2) no-take MPAs and adjacent areas where fisheries are allowed (non-MPAs) on coral reefs in Fiji. The MPAs exhibited greater species richness, density, and biomass of fishes than non-MPAs. Furthermore, MPAs contained a greater abundance and biomass of grazing herbivores and piscivores as well as a greater abundance of cleaners than fished areas. We also found differences in fish associations when foraging, with feeding groups being generally more diverse and having greater biomass within MPAs than adjacent non-MPAs. Grazing by parrotfishes was 3–6 times greater, and macroalgal browsing was 3–5 times greater in MPAs than in non-MPAs. On average, MPAs had 260–280% as much coral cover and only 5–25% as much macroalgal cover as their paired non-MPA sites. Finally, two of the three MPAs had three-fold more coral recruits than adjacent non-MPAs. The results of this study indicate that small MPAs benefit not only populations of reef fishes, but also enhance ecosystem processes that are critical to reef resilience within the MPAs.

Partial Text

In recent decades, fish biomass and coral cover on many tropical reefs have been severely depleted [1–4]. While this degradation may be associated with numerous factors, overfishing has been a primary driver of declines in fish biomass [1, 3, 4]. In many regions, the removal of large herbivorous fishes has been linked to changes in the benthic condition of coral reefs and the replacement of corals by benthic algae (and sometimes other non-scleractinian coral organisms) [3, 5, 6]. Indeed, a number of studies report positive correlations between live coral cover and the biomass of herbivorous fishes [2, 7, 8], so reduced biomass of herbivorous fishes may be linked to lower resilience of coral reef ecosystems, as coral health is compromised by competitive interactions with seaweeds that escape regulation by herbivory [2, 3, 9].

The study was conducted from November 2010 through February 2011 and between November 2011 and January 2012 on shallow (~1 m below the surface at low tide, equal or shallower than 2 m at high tide), intertidal fringing reefs platforms (up to 800-m wide) along the Coral Coast (18° 13.05’S, 177° 42.97’E) of Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island. Many of the owners of traditional fishing rights along the Coral Coast have established small, customary no-take MPAs to improve and sustain their adjacent fishing grounds. The MPAs in this region are delimited by surface markings and enforced by local villagers, and they have been closed to all fishing activities since their inception (about 10 years). The only exception to this closure was a small experimental hook and line fishing research project that was conducted in the MPAs of Votua and Namada [see 37 for details]. In the non-MPAs, the main fishing targets are species of Acanthuridae (Nasinae), Epinephelidae, Labridae, Mullidae, and Lutjanidae (RMB and MEH, pers. obs.). Permission for the research was granted by the Fijian Ministry of Education, National Heritage, Culture & Arts, Youth & Sports, which is authorized to approve field studies in Fijian waters. No animal collection or experimental procedures involving animals were conducted during the study, and no endangered species were recorded during our assessments. RMB conducted all of the visual surveys described below, and RMB and ASH conducted the algal assays.

MPAs are widely used for conserving fish populations and coral cover and, in doing so, it is hoped they will improve the recovery of reefs after disturbances [8, 11, 12, 69]. In this study, protection from fishing within small MPAs not only increased the species richness, density, and biomass of fishes, but also increased key ecosystem processes (herbivory), the diversity of fish groups, the coral cover, and the density of coral recruits. Indeed, despite the small size of the MPAs in this study, we recorded a 3–6 fold higher grazing by parrotfishes and a 3–5 fold higher macroalgal browsing in MPAs compared to adjacent non-MPAs, and this was associated with 2.6–2.8 greater coral cover within the MPAs. Collectively, these findings demonstrate that even small (< 1 km2) and young (ca. 10 years) MPAs can effectively conserve fish communities [e.g., 70, 71, 72], with significant effects on fish group formation, herbivory rates, and coral cover [e.g., 8, 73]. Also, as young corals were more abundant within than outside two out of three MPAs, it is possible that these small MPAs can provide higher abundance of coral recruits on the reef.   Source: