Assessing baseline levels of coral health in a newly established marine protected area in a global scuba diving hotspot
While coral reefs are increasingly threatened worldwide, they are also increasingly used for recreational activities. Given the environmental and socio-economic significance of coral reefs, understanding the links between human activities and coral health and evaluating the efficacy of marine protected areas (MPAs) as a management regime to prevent further deterioration are critically important. The aim of this study was to quantify indicators of coral health at sites inside and outside a newly rezoned MPA framework in the dive tourism hotspot of Koh Tao, Thailand. We found that patterns in the health and diversity of coral communities one year on did not reflect the protected status conferred by newly zoned MPAs, but instead reflected past history of recreational use around the island. Sites characterised as past high-use sites had lower mean percent cover of hard corals overall and of corals in the typically disease- and disturbance-susceptible family Acroporidae, but higher mean cover of species in the more weedy family Agariciidae. Past high use sites also had higher mean prevalence of infectious diseases and other indicators of compromised health. Sites within the newly established MPAs are currently subjected to higher levels of environmental and anthropogenic pressures, with sedimentation, algal overgrowth, feeding scars from Drupella snails, and breakage particularly prevalent compared to sites in non-MPA areas. Given the greater prevalence of these factors within protected sites, the capacity of the MPA framework to effectively prevent further deterioration of Koh Tao's reefs is unclear. Nevertheless, our study constitutes a strong baseline for future long-term evaluations of the potential of MPAs to maintain coral health and diversity on highly threatened reefs.