Expectations and Outcomes of Reserve Network Performance following Re-zoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
Networks of no-take marine reserves (NTMRs) are widely advocated for preserving exploited fish stocks and for conserving biodiversity. We used underwater visual surveys of coral reef fish and benthic communities to quantify the short- to medium-term (5 to 30 years) ecological effects of the establishment of NTMRs within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP). The density, mean length, and biomass of principal fishery species, coral trout (Plectropomus spp., Variola spp.), were consistently greater in NTMRs than on fished reefs over both the short and medium term. However, there were no clear or consistent differences in the structure of fish or benthic assemblages, non-target fish density, fish species richness, or coral cover between NTMR and fished reefs. There was no indication that the displacement and concentration of fishing effort reduced coral trout populations on fished reefs. A severe tropical cyclone impacted many survey reefs during the study, causing similar declines in coral cover and fish density on both NTMR and fished reefs. However, coral trout biomass declined only on fished reefs after the cyclone. The GBRMP is performing as expected in terms of the protection of fished stocks and biodiversity for a developed country in which fishing is not excessive and targets a narrow range of species. NTMRs cannot protect coral reefs directly from acute regional-scale disturbance but, after a strong tropical cyclone, impacted NTMR reefs supported higher biomass of key fishery-targeted species and so should provide valuable sources of larvae to enhance population recovery and long-term persistence.