Climate change and warming seas are transforming tropical coral reefs and undoing decades of knowledge about how to protect these delicate and vital ecosystems.
© Shaun Wilson, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions in Australia, and the University of Western Australia | Warming climate undoes decades of knowledge of marine protected areas

Many of the world's coral reefs are seeing biodiversity plunge in the face of repeated
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Protected areas, called marine reserves, are an effective and long-established tool in the conservation toolbox. Marine reserves have been used for decades to enhance biodiversity and  biomass by preventing damage and over-exploitation by fishing.
However, a new study highlights that tropical coral reef marine reserves can offer little defense in the face of  impacts. And the changes that are being observed will force scientists, conservationists, and reserve managers to rethink the role these protected areas can bring.
"Climate change is so fundamentally changing the structure and composition of coral reef ecosystems, that the way the ecosystem functions and response to common management and conservation approaches needs to be carefully re-evaluated," explains Professor Nick Graham of Lancaster University and lead author of the study. "The rules we have come to rely on, no longer apply."

Warming climate undoes decades of knowledge of marine protected areas
Algal dominated reef in Seychelles. Credit: Nick Graham, Lancaster University
Bleaching occurs when seas become too warm, causing corals to expel their colorful algae. This disrupts the ecosystem and reduces the availability of food and shelter for many .
Some coral reefs are able to recover over time, while others are transformed and become dominated by seaweed.
The new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, focused on reefs and marine reserves in Seychelles. Coral reefs in Seychelles were badly affected by a bleaching event in 1998 when around 90% of the coral died. Scientists used data from 21 reefs over a 20-year time period, spanning the 1998 bleaching event, to explore how reefs have changed and how this has affected the role of marine reserves.
Professor Graham explains: "Our long-term records of Seychelles' coral reefs show that before the bleaching event marine reserves contained high coral cover, a very biodiverse range of fish, and high biomass of carnivorous and herbivorous fish.
"Following the bleaching event, the role of the marine reserves changed substantially. They no longer supported higher coral cover compared to adjacent fished areas, and their role in enhancing biodiversity decreased. Plant-loving fish, such as rabbitfish and parrotfish, dominated fish communities. This was the case for reefs where corals were recovering, as well as reefs transformed and dominated by seaweed."

Warming climate undoes decades of knowledge of marine protected areas
A recovering reef in Seychelles. Credit: Nick Graham, Lancaster University
Reduced numbers of carnivorous predators, such as grouper and snapper species, show reserves are much less effective at protecting the tops of food webs in the years following bleaching events. These population drops are likely due to fewer fish for them to prey on after the loss of coral  structures.
Dr. Shaun Wilson, of the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation, and Attractions in Western Australia, a co-author of the study, said: "Despite these climate-driven transformations, marine protected areas still have a role to play in ocean conservation. It is encouraging that marine reserves continue to protect some species, especially when these species are critical for local fisheries."
Gilberte Gendron of the Seychelles National Parks Authority, adds: "Although these reordered marine reserves are less biodiverse, they are still important to maintain. This is because, when compared to openly fished areas, they still protect higher levels of fish biomass of species that are important to our local fisheries. For example, the protected herbivorous fish can spill out into openly fished areas and help support adjacent fisheries."
If the goal is to protect biodiversity then it may be better to target new marine reserves around those  where the rate of warming is slowest or those where recovery from bleaching is more likely.
While the scientists say  still have an important role to play in protecting , they call in their paper for urgent reductions in , as well as other pressures such as poor land practices that input nutrients and pollutants to coastal waters, to protect .
This article was originally published at Lancaster University. 
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