A STUDYof Ningaloo reef suggests marine protected areas in shallow coral-dominated reef habitats may not adequately protect fish species living beyond those habitats.
The study, funded by the WA Marine Science Institute (WAMSI) investigated the abundance and length of demersal fish assemblages across a section of tropical continental shelf at Ningaloo Reef.
Lead author and Oceanwise Environmental Scientists tropical marine ecologist Dr Ben Fitzpatrick says the study demonstrated that many species had depth ranges far greater than previously thought.
“This suggests some portions of fish populations may have deepwater refuges that we have not previously known of,” he says.
“In fact the deepwater assemblages quantified in this study were composed almost entirely of large bodied predatory species the majority of which are key components of a healthy coral reef ecosystem and also valuable recreational and commercial fish.
“So this means that continental shelf habitats play a very important role in maintaining healthy fish and shark populations and coastal ecosystems.”
Dr Fitzpatrick says to adequately protect the whole range of fish species that are found associated with a healthy coral reef ecosystem, there is a need for expanded marine management programs not just for shallow coastal areas like Ningaloo Reef but across Australia's vast marine territory.
This year’s 12th International Coral Reef Symposium, which was held in Queensland, saw the release of the Consensus Statement on Climate Change and Coral Reefs.
The consensus calls on all governments to ensure the future of coral reefs, through global action to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and via improved local protection of coral reefs.
Dr Fitzpatrick, who is one of over 3000 endorsees, says the consensus statement has a number of implications for fish assemblages and coral reefs across Australia.
“Pollution and sedimentation from coastal runoff, overfishing and habitat destruction are hampering the ability of coral reefs to recover from impacts driven by global climate change,” Dr Fitzpatrick says.
“Even pristine Australian coral reefs which experience minimal local impacts are not escaping impacts associated with global pressures including reefs around the Bucaneer and Dampier Archipelago, Scott Reef, the Montebello and Barrow Islands, Ningaloo Reef and the Abrolhos Islands.
“The main affect this will have on fish assemblages is a reduced ability of new fish recruits and adults to find suitable habitat to live in.”
Dr Fitzpatrick says where coral reef fish habitats have declined fish abundance has also declined.
He predicts the impact of climate change on reef habitat will have significant economic implications for the Australian tourism and fisheries industries and coastal communities.