When you think of a nature preserve, chances are you picture a tract of pristine, healthy wilderness, set aside in order to protect a functioning ecosystem. But what if not much remains of the ecosystem you want to protect?
A new proposal by an international group of scientists and conservationists is challenging traditional ideas about what’s worth saving when it comes to coral reefs. In 2010, the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity set a goal of conserving 10 percent of each of the world’s ecological regions, and agencies and governments around the world have set aside areas of healthy coral reef habitat as Marine Protected Areas or MPAs. However, the authors of a new study in the journal Conservation Biology argue that not enough pristine reefs might remain to meet this goal. The solution, they say, is to create new MPAs around degraded reef habitat, building opportunities for restoring and reconnecting reefs instead of simply abandoning these areas as lost forever.
Lead author Avigdor Abelson of Tel Aviv University has studied reefs in the Philippines, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Thailand, the Seychelles and many other countries. “In all those places, I saw the devastation of coral reefs,” he says. “In many places, you see more and more attempts at ecological restoration by different environmental organizations and governments, but in most cases these interventions have been applied in places that are not protected. Trying to do restoration where you have ongoing pollution or fishing or destruction of forests in the watershed is completely useless.”
Eventually, Abelson and his colleagues arrived at a seemingly counterintuitive solution: Protect damaged, degraded reefs as MPAs. “When conservation pioneers started with this idea to designate protected places, much of our planet was still in relatively good shape,” says Abelson. “Thirty, forty, fifty years ago, it made sense to target only the best, healthiest sites for protection, but our planet is completely different now.”
The new paper lays out a framework for selecting and managing sites to protect based on factors such as their state prior to degradation, potential for recovery, and resilience in the face of disturbance and stress. Site-specific management plans would attempt to turn sites that can’t support healthy populations of fish and other coral reef creatures without immigration from other areas into high-quality patches where populations can grow.
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article: Rebecca Heisman