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Jun 302008

By John DeFore

It may sound like a no-brainer to say that threatened fish populations stand to benefit when governments establish havens where fishing is prohibited. But since taking such actions can harm human livelihoods, proving they will have significant ecological benefit is a political must. That’s just what Australian researchers have done in a paper published in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology.

The team focused on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, an enormous tourist draw and center for commercial fisheries. After a public outcry greeted Australia’s rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to designate one third of its area as a “no-take marine reserve,” scientists at James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science set out to monitor the reserves’ success.

Though observers would expect to see fish populations rise in areas where no fishing is allowed, the scientists were surprised at the degree of improvement. Author Garry Russ, in a statement about the study, said that populations of coral trout (a particularly popular species for recreational and commercial fishers) had increased density levels of between 31% and 68% within two years.

“Others have seen such rapid increases in smaller-scale studies,” he said, “usually at one or a few small reserves. The big surprise was that we detected a consistent, rapid increase in multiple large reserves spread over 1000 km (621 miles) offshore and 700 km (435 miles) inshore. This represents a positive and unprecedented response to reserve protection.”

And, of course, it’s good news not only for environmentalists but for those whose careers depend on making Australian fishing a sustainable industry.

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