Climate Warming, Marine Protected Areas and the Ocean-Scale Integrity of Coral Reef Ecosystems
Coral reefs have emerged as one of the ecosystems most vulnerable to climate variation and change. While the contribution of a warming climate to the loss of live coral cover has been well documented across large spatial and temporal scales, the associated effects on fish have not. Here, we respond to recent and repeated calls to assess the importance of local management in conserving coral reefs in the context of global climate change. Such information is important, as coral reef fish assemblages are the most species dense vertebrate communities on earth, contributing critical ecosystem functions and providing crucial ecosystem services to human societies in tropical countries. Our assessment of the impacts of the 1998 mass bleaching event on coral cover, reef structural complexity, and reef associated fishes spans 7 countries, 66 sites and 26 degrees of latitude in the Indian Ocean. Using Bayesian meta-analysis we show that changes in the size structure, diversity and trophic composition of the reef fish community have followed coral declines. Although the ocean scale integrity of these coral reef ecosystems has been lost, it is positive to see the effects are spatially variable at multiple scales, with impacts and vulnerability affected by geography but not management regime. Existing no-take marine protected areas still support high biomass of fish, however they had no positive affect on the ecosystem response to large-scale disturbance. This suggests a need for future conservation and management efforts to identify and protect regional refugia, which should be integrated into existing management frameworks and combined with policies to improve system-wide resilience to climate variation and change.