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Marine Reserves and Marine Wilderness Areas

Coral reefs are ecosystems that are highly susceptible to human and environmental threats. For example, 80% of coral reefs in the Caribbean have disappeared in the last 30 years [1], and only 10% of large, predatory fish populations exist since pre-industrial times. [2] The threats causing coral reefs to disappear include: pollution, deep sea mining, overfishing, climate change, and coastal erosion due to both natural causes and human development. [3] The devastating effects these threats have on coral reefs not only impact the ecosystem, but also the local economies which depend on healthy reefs. For example, fishermen near coral reefs depend on an adequate amount of fish to sell, and fish will only stay and grow in healthy reefs. It is vital for the fishermen's livelihood that the coral reefs remain undamaged. [3] In order to stop, and possibly reverse, these damaging effects on coral reefs, marine reserves and marine protected areas (MPA's) are suggested methods for implementation. [3] However, as of February 2014, only 1.6% of the world's ocean is protected in a marine protected area (MPA) and less than 0.2% of the world's ocean is protected by marine reserves [4] .

What are Marine Reserves?

By definition, a marine reserve is an area of ocean where organisms and their habitats are completely protected by law from removal or alteration, and they are similar to national parks. [5] Fishermen cannot fish in these areas, and no plants or animals may be removed by tourists or aquarium traders. Also, deep sea mining companies cannot extract resources from these areas, because their machines will impact and alter the habitats. [3]

Global average of change within marine reserves [6]

How marine reserves help coral reefs

The number of species are higher, which helps to protect diversity [5] Organisms can grow larger, thus reaching and maintaining viable reproductive ages. The organisms in the marine reserve are able to reproduce more as a result of these factors, which leads to greater numbers in the population. [5] Habitats in Marine Reserves can recover more quickly to threats than if fished, so the ecosystems are more sustainable and resilient [5]The borders of marine reserves are porous, which can affects populations outside of its borders. Fish from the reserve can reach a high enough population density that some fish can spillover into waters neighboring the reserve. This in turn can replenish nearby populations depleted by fishing practices. [7] Similarly, there is the reseeding effect where fish eggs can drift, hatch, grow up and then mate outside of the marine reserve.

Marine reserves are a useful conservation tool if carefully designed and enforced. Scientific data must be used to find the areas of the ocean where a marine reserve would most effectively be established, and then proper law enforcement should takes into account local cultural practices to ensure that the marine reserve is not abused by humans. However, marine reserves should not replace other traditional fishery management practices such as catch quotas and gear restrictions. [2]

World map of current Marine Reserves [6]

Where are Marine reserves now?

According to the map pictured at left, every continent, aside from Antartica, has at least 5 marine reserves. However, these marine reserves only protect less than 0.2% of the world's ocean [4]. UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) has set the goal of increasing this, particularly by putting 10% of the world's ocean under the protection of marine reserves by the year 2020. [4].

How are Marine Reserves different from Marine Protected Areas?

A marine reserve is a subset of marine protected areas, and is distinguished by being a defined area where some or all fishing is prohibited for a certain period of time. While Marine Protected Areas represent an effort to conserve the marine environment, marine reserves focus specifically on fishing limitations and represent a higher level of protection than Marine Protected Areas. Marine reserves can be a valuable management tool when fish stocks are uncertain. The areas adjacent to the Marine Reserve will also benefit from the spill over effect. For example, if a particular Marine Reserve is designed as "no-take" or if fishing is prohibited, fish populations will thrive in that area. Since there are no real, physical boundaries around a Marine Reserve, nothing is preventing fish from swimming across the imaginary line out of the reserve. This then increases the population of fish inside the Marine Reserve as well as in the adjacent areas, and can help to significantly restore fish populations. However, once the fish is outside the Marine Reserve, it is at a higher risk of being caught. By preventing fishing in Marine Reserves, ecosystems and species that would otherwise be fished have the chance to develop and grow into mature adults without being caught. Marine Reserves provide opportunity for ecosystem development and increased resilience in an increasingly acidic and warming ocean. Objectives of Marine Reserves include stock rebuilding, biological productivity, economic productivity, habitat protection, research and education. [8] Marine reserves are similar to a “fishery reserves”, which are defined by : “Zoning that precludes fishing activity on some or all species to protect critical habitat, rebuild stocks (long term, but not necessarily permanent closure), provide insurance against overfishing, or enhance fishery yield.” [8]

Why aren’t there more closed areas?

Many forces are at play when it comes to instituting marine reserves, and mainly it comes down to the fact that it is very difficult to regulate fishing practices in something as vast, large and continuous as the ocean unless a particular Marine Reserve has it's own authorities. People may oppose restrictions put in place by Marine Reserves because it prevents them from fishing, which may be their source of livelihood. People and fishermen don't want to be told that they can't fish. There are two authorities regarding marine reserves; the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. [8] The councils only have control over fishing regulations, not over dumping, dredging, or other potentially harmful human activities. Therefore, these agencies set the rules for the fishing limitations in a Marine Reserve but have no authority to regulate other forms of destruction to the marine area. Because of these two large governing bodies, it is almost impossible to regulate and enforce the rules of Marine Reserves. It is up to the managers of each reserve to enforce restrictions and prevent illegal activity. This can sometimes be costly and/or difficult. The vastness and ever-changing nature of the ocean makes it difficult to study, maintain and monitor. Complexities regarding tides, ocean current, enormity of the number of species, poaching and illegal fishing are also a factor. [9] Successful reserves require careful scientific design and need time for recovery. Not all areas would benefit from being turned into a Marine Reserve, and some places need more protection than others. It is important to carefully consider the species in a potential Marine Reserve location and to predict the impacts of this protection on the ecosystem before a Marine Reserve is designated.

Map of Tortugas Ecological Reserve (photo courtesy of Florida Keys National Marine Santuary 2011)

Tortugas Ecological Reserve: An Example

The Tortugas Ecological Reserve is a part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and has cleaner and clearer water and healthier coral than anywhere else in the Florida Keys. It was designated as a sanctuary in 2001. The success of this reserve is attributed to a number of factors, including its isolation and designated authorities to enforce the rules and regulations of the reserve. [10] The restrictions on this reserve represent some of the most strict, and is perhaps why the reserve is still so pristine and un-damaged. All fishing, diving and snorkeling of any kind are prohibited in the reserve. No anchoring is allowed, and vessels may only be present in the area if they are crossing through. Cooling water and engine exhaust are the only things allowed to be dumped in the reserve, and access permits are required to use a mooring buoy at the perimeter of the reserve. [10] While divers and snorkels may not intend to have a negative impact on the reef environment, their presence can put a significant amount of stress on the reef, if for example a diver touches or sits on a reef. Similarly, carelessly placed anchors or large boats can also damage the reefs. The Tortugas Ecological Reserve is a place that is truly off-limits to humans, and has shown to be successful in maintaining and preserving the ocean ecosystem by preventing potentially damaging practices from happening.

Tortugas Ecological Reserve (photo courtesy of BD Outdoors 2013)

A recent study conducting by NOAA concluded that the surrounding area of Tortugas Marine Reserve experienced an increase in fish yield as a result of the protection in the reserve and the spill over effect. This resulted in increases in commercial catches and benefits to the fishing industry in the Florida Keys. Species such as the black and red grouper, yellowtail and mutton snapper increased in size and abundance, according to the report. [11] This study indicates the benefits of marine reserves in not only the ecosystem contained within the reserve but also on the surrounding area. Without Tortugas Ecological Reserve, the gains in the aforementioned species of fish would not have happened. The benefit experienced by the fishing industry suggests that the benefits of marine reserves are not just ecological preservation, but also economic stimulation and the prevention of overfishing.

Marine Reserves represent a special type of Marine Protected Areas that receive protection from fishing or harvesting wildlife. Depending on the management of the reserve, it may also receive protection against dumping, boats and/or divers and snorkelers. In order to best preserve marine environments, more Marine Reserves and Marine Protected areas are necessary. Studies have demonstrated their efficacy in reversing negative impact of over fishing and stimulating ecological restoration and resilience. Various organizations work on increasing protection and support for Marine Protected Areas and Marine Reserves, such as the Ocean Conservancy [12] You can get involved by continuing to educate yourself on the threats that human activity poses on marine life and by visiting the Ocean Conservancy's website.


  1. Burcke, James. "Catlin Group." Catlin. Catlin Seaview Survey, 21 July 2013.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Article: Understanding a Marine Wilderness (in Parts)." AMNH. American Museum of National History, n.d.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "The Oceans Are in a Crisis. Greenpeace Has a Plan to save Them." Greenpeace International. N.p., Apr. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Eddy, T. D. "One Hundred-Fold Difference between Perceived and Actual Levels of Marine Protection in New Zealand." Marine Policy 46 (2014): 61-7. SCOPUS. Web. 22 February 2014.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 "No-take Marine Reserve Basics." Advocates for Wild, Healthy Oceans. The Ocean Conservancy, 27 July 2012
  6. 6.0 6.1 http://piscoweb.org, 2007
  7. McClanahan, T. R. "Recovery of Functional Groups and Trophic Relationships in Tropical Fisheries Closures." Marine Ecology Progress Series 497 (2014): 13-23. SCOPUS.Web. 22 February 2014.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "Habitat and Communities: Marine Reserves and Marine Protected Areas." Marine Reserves and Marine Protected Areas. N.p., 1 Feb. 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2014. <http://www.pcouncil.org/habitat-and-communities/marine-protected-areas/>.
  9. Baker, Norman. "Benefits, Results and Challenges for Marine Reserves." . Sierra Club, 1 June 2012. Web. 22 Feb. 2014. <http://cascade.sierraclub.org/files/Benefits%20Results%20and%20Challenges%20of%20Marine%20Reserves.pdf>.
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Tortugas Ecological Reserve." Tortugas Ecological Reserve. N.p., 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2014. <http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/zones/ers/tortugas.html>.
  11. Jeffrey, C.F.G., V.R. Leeworthy, M.E. Monaco, G. Piniak, M. Fonseca (eds.). 2012. An Integrated Biogeographic Assessment of Reef Fish Populations and Fisheries in Dry Tortugas: Effects of No-take Reserves. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS 111. Prepared by the NCCOS Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment Biogeography Branch. Silver Spring, MD. 147 pp. Web. 24 Feb.
  12. http://www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/marine-protected-areas/
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