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World's coral reef left vulnerable by paper parks

First-ever analysis reveals that most coral reef protected areas are too small, far apart and are at risk from poaching and external human threats

Although 18.7% of the world's coral reefs are within "Marine Protected Areas" (MPAs) less that 2% are within MPAs with sound management, scientists report in the June 23 edition of Science Magazine.

MPAs are designed to limit human activities in a particular location to protect the marine ecosystem within their boundaries. This new analysis provides an evaluation of the world's coral reef MPAs based on their regulations on extraction, prevention of poaching, incidence of external human threats such as pollution, coastal development and overfishing, MPAs size and MPA distance to neighbor protected areas.

"Although coral reefs are declining worldwide, actions to reverse such a crisis are woefully inadequate in most countries," says Dr. Camilo Mora, a scientist at Dalhousie University and lead author of the study. "Clearly, lines on the map are not enough to protect the world's coral reefs."

The authors recommend that protected areas need to be enforced to prevent poaching and should be expanded to include the management of external threats. Furthermore, the authors suggest that MPAs should be bigger and should be linked to other protected areas to be more effective. "The future of coral reefs worldwide relies on countries and conservation agencies seriously embracing these objectives" adds Dr. Mora.

"We were expecting a poor result, but not numbers of this magnitude," adds co-author Dr. Mark A. Costello of the University of Auckland. "This study of protected areas worldwide suggests we are not reaping their potential positive benefits and stemming the current decline of coral reefs worldwide."

The international team of researchers from seven countries conducted the first-ever global assessment of coral reef conservation. The team built a database of MPAs for 102 countries, including satellite imagery of reefs worldwide, and surveyed more than 1,000 MPA managers and scientists to assess the conservation performance of MPAs.

"What we found, in essence, is that we are creating paper parks," explains co-author and fellow researcher Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University. "The establishment of Marine Protected Areas is rarely followed by good management and enforcement. And while management of MPAs varies worldwide, it was particularly low in areas of high coral diversity such as the Indo-Pacific and the Caribbean."

"This new study combines a simple approach with detailed large-scale databases to provide the first such global assessment of biodiversity protection," says co-author Dr. Serge Andréfouët, a scientist with the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in New Caledonia. "We lack similar global assessment for other marine habitats, including kelp forests, seagrass beds, and deep-sea corals; but we have no reason to believe these may be better protected than tropical coral reefs."

"This paper is a wake-up call," says Dr. Peter Sale at the University of Windsor, "It reminds us that despite recent successes in protecting coral reefs, our actions to date fall far short of what is required to save these most diverse of all marine habitats."

Camilo Mora | EurekAlert!
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