‘Bright spots’ in Papua New Guinea shine light on the future of coral reefs

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Researchers have discovered a handful of “bright spots” among the world’s embattled coral reefs, offering the promise of a radical new approach to conservation.

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Researchers have discovered a handful of “bright spots” among the world’s embattled coral reefs, offering the promise of a radical new approach to conservation.

In one of the largest global studies of its kind, researchers including University of Washington professor Edward Allison reviewed more than 6,000 reef surveys in 46 countries across the globe, and discovered 15 bright spots — places where, against all odds, there were a lot more fish on coral reefs than expected.

“Given the widespread depletion of coral reef fisheries globally, we were really excited to find these bright spots that were fairing much better than we anticipated,” said lead author Josh Cinner, a professor with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia.

The study was published June 15 in Nature. Nearly 40 scientists from 34 different universities and conservation groups conducted the research.
Marine protected areas support and maintain a rich diversity and abundance of reef fishes in the Rock Islands of Palau, Micronesia.Tane Sinclair-Taylor

Bright spots are reefs with more fish than expected based on their exposure to factors such as human population, poverty and unfavorable environmental conditions. Bright spots are not necessarily pristine reefs, but rather reefs that have more fish than they should, given the pressures they face.

Allison, a professor in the UW’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, contributed ideas from his studies of international development and business organizations on ways to identify coral reefs that were doing better, ecologically, than expected, given global and local pressures they are under.

“This allows us to focus on these areas to learn lessons which might help conserve or restore other reefs, a particularly urgent task given the mounting pressure from global change,” Allison said.

This type of bright spots analysis has been used in fields such as human health to improve the well-being of millions of people. This study is the first time the method has been rigorously developed for conservation.

The scientists also identified 35 “dark spots” — reefs with fish stocks in worse shape than expected.

Bright spots were typically found in the Pacific Ocean in places like the Solomon Islands, parts of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati. Dark spots were more globally distributed and found in every major ocean basin.

“Many bright spots had strong local involvement in how the reefs were managed, local ownership rights, and traditional management practices,” said co-author Christina Hicks of Lancaster and Stanford universities. “Dark spots also had a few defining characteristics; they were subject to intensive netting activities and there was easy access to freezers so people could stockpile fish to send to the market.”
A Titan villager navigates a traditional Melanesian outrigger over the diverse coral reef assemblages that surround and support his home island of Mbuke, in the Manus Province of Papua New Guinea.Tane Sinclair-Taylor

The study found that marine waters deemed important to conserve were also areas that people use heavily, supporting a number of livelihoods such as fishing. This study could change the emphasis from creating marine protected areas in remote parts of the ocean to recognizing that conservation is important, and possible, in heavily used waters, Allison said.

A villager fishes
A Titan villager navigates a traditional Melanesian outrigger over the diverse coral reef assemblages that surround and support his home island of Mbuke, in the Manus Province of Papua New Guinea.Tane Sinclair-Taylor

“This kind of science really helps us make good choices on where to invest efforts and resources on marine protection,” he said. “This allows us a whole new entry point into conservation and planning, especially as the seas are increasingly zoned for different uses such as energy generation, conservation and food production.”

“We believe that the bright spots offer hope and some solutions that can be applied more broadly across the world’s coral reefs,” Cinner said. “Specifically, investments that foster local involvement and provide people with ownership rights can allow people to develop creative solutions that help defy expectations of reef fisheries depletion.”

This was adapted from an ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies news release.

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