Last Friday evening I went to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation 20th Anniversary celebration at their headquarters in the median around mile marker 98. It was great to chat with Ned and Anna DeLoach and Paul Humann about their recent trips and plans for the future.
I met volunteers from as far away as Seattle and North Carolina. I was also able to facilitate a connection between two educational groups that run programs for school kids. I had a blast. Congratulation to REEF! It was a pleasure to hang out with folks who demonstrate their passion for the ocean by putting gear on, jumping in, and taking part in the many projects REEF has to offer citizen-scientist volunteers. Ill be diving this week with one of the educational groups, which I will write about in the near future.
Out of all the programs, the one that fascinates me the most is the Grouper Moon Project. Maybe because its a bucket list event for me, or maybe because the science conducted and lessons learned from this effort could have critically important implications for our own waters. In either case, aggregations are essential for the future of the ecosystem, and the Grouper Moon Project proves it beyond the shadow of any doubt.
A Changing Seas television episode explains the importance of protecting the aggregation site, and how it is also important to keep it closed for other species. Scientists counted over 20 species exhibiting spawning behavior while they were monitoring the grouper event, including triggerfish, six species of jacks, permits, chubs, margates, five species of snapper, honeycomb cowfish and five other grouper species besides Nassau. The 26-minute episode is worth the watch. See it here:http://video.wpbt2.org/video/2247780078/
They also found through acoustic studies that the aggregations are primarily for local populations, which means that once an aggregation area is depleted, it is highly unlikely it can recover. According to the project findings, the Nassau groupers need to be at least four years old to begin spawning. They live about 20 years. Populations like this can be easily decimated by fishing during the aggregations, as larger, older fish are taken. This is solid evidence for protecting spawning aggregations.
As I was going through all of this science, I recalled an article I sent out (by mistake, actually) to all the members of the Sanctuary Advisory Council. I thought I was just sending a note back to my pal Skip Moe, but it ended up in everybodys inbox. Well, at least I am learning to get their attention after all, Ive been pretty mellow so far during this process.
In A General Business Model for Marine Reserves, principal author Eric Sala points out that peer-reviewed studies on 124 marine reserves in 29 countries showed that, on average, marine reserves cause increases of 21 percent in the number of species, 28 percent in the size of organisms, 166 percent in density (number of individuals per unit area) and a remarkable 466 percent in biomass, relative to unprotected areas nearby.
However, the increase in biomass of predatory fish can be greater than the above averages. The increase in the biomass of predators has been shown to produce a re-accommodation of the food web, shifting from a degraded state typical of intensely fished sites to a more complex, mature state. These food web changes can enhance ecosystem resilience by promoting the recovery of populations of functionally important species. What a mouthful. This is a very interesting statement, particularly in light of the marine zoning process underway in the Keys.
He goes on to say, The increase in the biomass of commercial species inside marine reserves has been shown to increase reproductive output as long as the reproductive grounds are included in the reserves. And with the perspective of the Grouper Moon Project as a backdrop, again I stress the importance of protecting aggregation sites. Period.
In the guts of the analysis, Sala shows that reserves have tremendous economic value for the community as a whole, to the point that reserves may in fact increase the economic value of the community more by promoting tourism, diving and fishing than the value of the fish taken as fishery catch.
Wow. Thats a powerful notion. And that is straight from 124 examples from around the world in 29 countries. I have personally been to four of the 12 areas he uses as examples of the economic benefits of marine reserves, and can tell you that the folks there are proud to present their home reef to you when you visit. It is such a delightful, positive mindset, where stakeholders have worked together to foster a healthier, resilient, sustainable ecosystem. The web address for this is really long, so I put a copy on my site: http://timgimages.com/PDF/BusinessCaseforReserves.pdf
As an offshoot to this study, Benjamin Halpern notes that our results suggest marine reserves can locally replenish fish stocks outside their boundaries. Therefore, no-take marine reserves need not create conflict between fishery and conservation goals, and, in fact, may often offer a solution benefiting all parties. You may download this study here: http://www.timgimages.com/PDF/Halpern_etal_2010_EnvCons.pdf
As I asked last time, what type of ecosystem will we create at the end of this process? Will the status quo remain, or will the SAC and NOAA take the necessary steps to increase biomass of key species, protect reproductive sites, and create reserves of sufficient size to have a positive impact on our waters? Only time will tell, as it has for the 124 reserves in Salas study that are proven successes.
Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at email@example.com or through his web site at www.timgimages.com. Tim is a member of the Ecosystem Protection Working Group for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.