Effects of Marine Reserves versus Nursery Habitat Availability on Structure of Reef Fish Communities
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I. Nagelkerken, M. G. G. Grol, and P. J. Mumby


No-take marine fishery reserves sustain commercial stocks by acting as buffers against overexploitation and enhancing fishery catches in adjacent areas through spillover. Likewise, nursery habitats such as mangroves enhance populations of some species in adjacent habitats. However, there is lack of understanding of the magnitude of stock enhancement and the effects on community structure when both protection from fishing and access to nurseries concurrently act as drivers of fish population dynamics. In this study we test the separate as well as interactive effects of marine reserves and nursery habitat proximity on structure and abundance of coral reef fish communities. Reserves had no effect on fish community composition, while proximity to nursery habitat only had a significant effect on community structure of species that use mangroves or seagrass beds as nurseries. In terms of reef fish biomass, proximity to nursery habitat by far outweighed (biomass 249% higher than that in areas with no nursery access) the effects of protection from fishing in reserves (biomass 21% lower than non-reserve areas) for small nursery fish (#25 cm total length). For large-bodied individuals of nursery species (.25 cm total length), an additive effect was present for these two factors, although fish benefited more from fishing protection (203% higher biomass) than from proximity to nurseries (139% higher). The magnitude of elevated biomass for small fish on coral reefs due to proximity to nurseries was such that nursery habitats seem able to overrule the usually positive effects on fish biomass by reef reserves. As a result, conservation of nursery habitats gains importance and more consideration should be given to the ecological processes that occur along nursery-reef boundaries that connect neighboring ecosystems.

Main Results and Conclusions:
  • The study was carried out in the reefs surrounding the Caribbean island of Grand Cayman where a total of 30 common fish species were observed (2).
  • The results of the study are as follows (3):
  • “When fish biomass was analyzed irrespective of body size, biomass of species that use a mangrove/seagrass nurseries as well as all species was significantly higher at sites close to nurseries than at isolated reef sites, independent of reserve effect (Fig. 3a…).”
  • “Size spectrum analysis showed that the response of large-bodied individuals (.25 cm TL) to protection from fishing in reserves and nursery access depended on whether they used nurseries as juveniles. For those species that used nurseries, total biomass was significantly greater in reserves (compared to fished areas) and when nursery access was high (vs. nursery-isolated areas) (Table 2; Fig. 3b).”
  • “A different pattern emerged for smaller bodied fishes (#25 cm TL). The abundance of species that utilized nurseries was positively associated with the presence of nurseries (Fig. 3b).”
  • The study showed a clear difference between the effects of nursery habitat vs. marine protection:
  •  Specifically for small bodied fish, the presence of mangrove nursery habitat greatly effected fishery yeilds: “Proximity to mangrove/seagrass nursery habitats by far outweighed the effects of protection from fishing (i.e., reserve effect) for reef fish that use mangrove/seagrass nurseries and whose body length was less than 25 cm. Whereas reserves had on average 21% lower biomass of small fish compared to fished areas (when combining both nursery treatments), presence of nursery habitat biomass led to a 249% higher biomass compared to reefs without nearby nursery habitat access (combining both protection treatments)…The present study indicates that the magnitude of this effect is such that fished areas with nursery access can have much higher standing stocks (in this case 2.5 fold) of small-bodied fishes than marine reserves that do not have nursery access”(3,4).
  • Specifically for large bodied fish, the data from the study indicated that “…nursery presence and protection from fishing in reserves had an additive effect on the reef biomass of large nursery fish, with reserve presence contributing to a higher degree than nursery presence. Protection of the larger individuals of nursery species should thus not be restricted to areas close to nurseries, although they benefited most from fishery protection near nurseries. Nevertheless, nursery-access enhanced biomass of large nursery species in fished as well as reserve areas”(4).
  • Specifically for species of fish belonging to the families of grunts, snappers, and parrotfish, biomass “…was higher on reefs close to than far away from nurseries, which underlines the importance of ecosystem connectivity for reef resilience and ecosystem functioning”(5).
  • In conclusion, “The relative importance of nursery habitat and marine reserve presence on coral reef fish community structure depends on fish size and whether fish use mangrove/seagrass nurseries. Large individuals of nursery species that are commercially exploited seem similarly susceptible to fishing as other species and benefit most from protection in areas close to nurseries. For small individuals of nursery species, nursery habitat presence by far outweighed the effects of protection from fishing in marine reserves. The present study shows how ecosystem connectivity adds an additional level of complexity to marine reserve design and functioning”(6).



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