North experts studies impact of over-fishing on world's coral reefs

Newcastle University research shows how long coral reefs depleted by fishing will take to recover and what can be done to help

Nick Graham Researchers chart course for recover of coral reef fishes
Researchers chart course for recover of coral reef fishes

Studies by a North East expert have helped identify for the first time the extent to which fish populations on the world’s coral reefs have been depleted by fishing and estimated the recovery potential that different conservation measures could have.

As part of a global study into the recovery potential of coral reefs, researchers examined more than 800 reefs in 64 locations around the world.

They found that 83% of fished reefs are missing more than half of their expected fish populations.

Co-author of the research paper, Prof Nick Polunin from the School of Marine Science and Technology at Newcastle University, said: “In spite of coral reefs being home to thousands of species of fish and providing millions of people with food and income, until now we have had only a hazy overview of the state of coral reef ecosystems.

“We now know that most reef systems have been severely depleted by fishing.

Nick Graham Researchers chart course for recover of coral reef fishes
Researchers chart course for recover of coral reef fishes

“Although it’s clear that recovery often takes decades, the range of restrictions we factored into our research helps us chart a course for the recovery of coral reef fisheries that includes everyone, not just those who can afford to wall off large areas.”

Coral reefs are among the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, providing an important habitat for a wide range of species, and as a result, people in many tropical countries depend on them for their livelihoods.

In recent years, there have been numerous calls for more marine reserves to be introduced in order to restore coral reefs.

But while there is existing research into the benefits of marine reserves, there is limited understanding of how long it takes reef fishes to recover once protected from fishing.

Nick Graham Researchers chart course for recover of coral reef fishes
Researchers chart course for recover of coral reef fishes

The research team has used its findings to develop the first benchmarks for the recovery potential of fished reefs, and conclude that the most fished reefs would take an average of 35 years of protection to recover, while the most depleted areas would take almost 60 years.

The team also found that simple fishing restrictions that are more likely to be accepted by communities who depend on the reefs - such as a ban on specific fishing gears, restrictions on the types of fish that can be caught, and a limit on the number of people allowed to fish a reef - all could have a positive impact on recovery potential and support important reef processes.

While marine reserves are the most effective way of recovering fish populations, the researchers agreed that a “one size fits all” approach of locking away reef resources is not feasible for many communities dependent on fishing.

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