The Impact of Marine Protected Areas on Reef-Wide Population Structure and Fishing-Induced Phenotypes in Coral-Reef Fishes
Fidler, Robert Young
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Overfishing and destructive fishing practices threaten the sustainability of fisheries worldwide. In addition to reducing population sizes, anthropogenic fishing effort is highly size-selective, preferentially removing the largest individuals from harvested stocks. Intensive, size-selective mortality induces widespread phenotypic shifts toward the predominance of smaller and earlier-maturing individuals. Fish that reach sexual maturity at smaller size and younger age produce fewer, smaller, and less viable larvae, severely reducing the reproductive capacity of exploited populations. These directional phenotypic alterations, collectively known as “fisheries-induced evolution” (FIE) are among the primary causes of the loss of harvestable fish biomass. Marine protected areas (MPAs) are one of the most widely utilized components of fisheries management programs around the world, and have been proposed as a potential mechanism by which the impacts of FIE may be mitigated. The ability of MPAs to buffer exploited populations against fishing pressure, however, remains debated due to inconsistent results across studies. Additionally, empirical evidence of phenotypic shifts in fishes within MPAs is lacking. This investigation addresses both of these issues by: (1) using a categorical meta-analysis of MPAs to standardize and quantify the magnitude of MPA impacts across studies; and (2) conducting a direct comparison of life-history phenotypes known to be influenced by FIE in six reef-fish species inside and outside of MPAs. The Philippines was used as a model system for analyses due to the country’s significance in global marine biodiversity and reliance on MPAs as a fishery management tool. The quantitative impact of Philippine MPAs was assessed using a “reef-wide” meta-analysis. This analysis used pooled visual census data from 39 matched pairs of MPAs and fished reefs surveyed twice over a mean period of 3 years. In 17 of these MPAs, two additional surveys were conducted using size-specific fish counts, allowing for spatiotemporal comparisons of abundance and demographic structure of fish populations across protected and fished areas. Results of the meta-analysis revealed that: (1) although fish density was higher inside MPAs than in fished reefs at each sampling period, reef-wide density often increased or remained stable over time; and (2) increases in large-bodied fish were evident reef-wide between survey periods, indicating that positive demographic shifts occurred simultaneously in both MPAs and adjacent areas. Increases in large-bodied fish were observed across a range of taxa, but were most prominent in families directly targeted by fishermen. These results suggest that over relatively few years of protection, Philippine MPAs promoted beneficial shifts in population structure throughout entire reef systems, rather than simply maintaining stable populations within their borders. Relationships between MPA age and shifts in fish density or demographic structure were rare, but may have been precluded by the relatively short period between replicate surveys. Although increases in fish density inside MPAs were occasionally associated with MPA size, there were no significant relationships between the size of MPAs and reef-wide increases in fish density. The reef-wide framework of MPA assessment used in this study has the advantage of treating MPAs and fished reefs as an integrated system, thus revealing trends that would be indistinguishable in traditional spatial comparisons between MPAs and fished reefs. The impact of MPAs on fishing-induced life-history traits was assessed by comparing growth and maturation patterns exhibited by six reef-fish species inside and outside five MPAs and adjacent, fished reefs in Zambales, Luzon, Philippines. This analysis demonstrated considerable variation in terminal body-sizes (Linf) and growth rates (K) between conspecifics in MPAs and fished reefs. Three of the four experimental species directly targeted for food in the region (Acanthurus nigrofuscus, Ctenochaetus striatus, and Parupeneus multifasciatus) exhibited greater Linf, lower K, or both characteristics inside at least one MPA compared to populations in adjacent, fished reefs. Life-history shifts were concentrated in the oldest and largest MPAs, but occurred at least once in each of the five MPAs that were examined. A fourth species harvested for food (Ctenochaetus binotatus), as well as a species targeted for the aquarium trade (Zebrasoma scopas) and a non-target species (Plectroglyphidodon lacrymatus) did not exhibit differential phenotypes between MPAs and fished reefs. The relatively high frequency of alterations to life-history characteristics across MPAs in harvested species suggests that observed changes in the density and size-structure of harvested fish populations inside MPAs are likely driven by spatial disparities in fishing pressure, and are the result of phenotypic changes rather than increased longevity. Back-calculation of age- and size-at-maturity as well as total egg production (TEP) indicated that life-history alterations inside MPAs were substantial enough to promote increased potential lifetime fitness. Phenotypic shifts induced by MPAs have important potential benefits for management programs, as protected populations are likely to exhibit greater fecundity than conspecifics in adjacent reefs, increasing the resilience of fisheries to both anthropogenic and environmental stressors. Perhaps most importantly for fisheries management, spawning potential ratios (SPRs), a common metric by which catch limits are set, decreased greatly when calculated using life-history parameters from MPAs compared to those of fished populations. These results suggest that SPRs are influenced by shifted baselines in fisheries that have experienced previous harvest pressure. The use of population characteristics inside MPAs as more accurate models of pre-exploitation states may help alleviate these issues, especially in data-poor fisheries.