Key drivers of effectiveness in small marine protected areas
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are a key management tool for the conservation of biodiversity and restoration of marine communities. While large, well-designed and enforced MPAs have been found to be effective, results from small MPAs vary. The Hawkesbury Shelf, a coastal bioregion in New South Wales, Australia, has ten small, near-shore MPAs known as Aquatic Reserves with a variety of protection levels from full no-take to partial protection. This study assessed the effectiveness of these MPAs and analysed how MPA age, size, protection level, wave exposure, habitat complexity, and large canopy-forming algal cover affected fish, invertebrate and benthic communities. We found aspect, protection level, complexity and algal canopy to be important predictors of communities in these MPAs. Most MPAs, however, were not effective in meeting their goals. Only full no-take protection (three out of ten MPAs) had a significant impact on fish assemblages. One no-take MPA—Cabbage Tree Bay—which is naturally sheltered from wave action and benefits from an active local community providing informal enforcement, accounted for most of the increased richness of large fish and increased biomass of targeted fish species. Our findings suggest that small MPAs can enhance biodiversity and biomass on a local scale but only if they have full no-take protection, are in sheltered locations with complex habitat, and have positive community involvement to engender support and stewardship. These results provide a baseline for robust assessment of the effectiveness of small MPAs and inform future management decisions and small MPA design in other locations.
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