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[KUALA LUMPUR] Marine reserves may be helpful not only for promoting the diversity of fish species but may also have the potential to withstand the impacts of climate change better than fished areas, a study conducted around the Maria Island Marine Reserve in Tasmania, Australia, indicates.

The team of researchers from the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (UTAS-IMAS) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Marine and Atmospheric Research, Australia, used a 20-year data set collected from the reserve since 1992 to understand how biodiversity and the biological characteristics of the fish communities changed as a result of the warming waters.  

Climate change effects were stimulated by currents from eastern Australia which carry warm tropical waters southwards.

Comparing population richness and species diversity in protected waters to those in nearby areas open to fishing, the study, published in Nature Climate Change (1 December), notes that marine reserve areas were more resilient to the warming effects of climate change. The study also found out that the reserve areas can better resist colonisation by new species brought by the warming waters.

“Our work provides evidence that protection from fishing can create ecological resilience,” says lead author Amanda Bates, a marine ecologist at UTAS-IMAS.

“What we have found highlights the value of marine protected areas (MPAs) as management tools to help understand what changes are occurring due to climate change so that informed management strategies can be implemented,” adds Bates.

The research was originally conceptualised to examine the impact of fishing in Tasmanian waters. Co-author Neville Barrett, a UTAS research fellow who initiated the project, says it has since been replicated by similar studies in other parts of Australia such as Jervis Bay in New South Wales and Jurien Bay Marine Park in Western Australia.

Barrett says: “The information gained from the studies can be used by management to develop adaptive strategies and policies to address the impacts of climate change and identify mechanisms by which they can act. So in places where fisheries management is fast and responsive, then that may be via new rules, and where that is not possible, it may be via appropriate networks of no-take MPAs.”

Bates says they are now examining other marine reserves around the world for evidence of resilience and to see how further warming could change these systems.

Link to abstract in Nature Climate Change

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.