Acropora reef with a school of grunts.
© Brian Kakuk
Coral reef ecosystems, including the surrounding habitats,
are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. They are
biologically important because they provide nursery areas for reef-associated
fishes and invertebrates. They are of economic importance, providing
goods and services exceeding $375 billion globally each year. For
example in the Bahamas, Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus)
which relies on coral reef habitats as adults but algal nursery
habitats as juveniles, is one of the country’s most valuable exports,
accounting for more than $61 million in 1998. The Nassau grouper,
Epinephelus striatus, and the Queen conch, Strombus gigas,
are also extremely important commercial fishery species throughout
the Caribbean, but are now endangered because of overexploitation
and loss of habitat. The most promising tool for conserving essential
fishery habitats such as coral reefs and associated species are
marine reserves, where no exploitation is allowed and human impacts
are minimized. For example, the Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park (ECL&SP),
established in 1959 and a no-take reserve since 1986, is one of
the oldest marine reserves in existence. A workshop held in conjunction
with the Center for Marine Conservation at NOAA's Undersea Research
Marine Research Center (CMRC), Lee Stocking Island, Bahamas,
determined criteria for the design, selection, and size of a network
of marine fishery reserves in the Bahamas.
A Nassau grouper, Epinephelus striatus,
swimming near the patch reef.
Courtesy of C. Dahlgren
A Caribbean spiny lobster, Panulirus
argus, in its reef habitat.
Courtesy of C. Dahlgren
Researchers supported by the Perry
Institute for Marine Science/Caribbean Marine Research Center
(CMRC) are investigating the efficacy of marine reserves to increase
the abundance and reproductive potential of spiny lobster, Queen
conch, and Nassau grouper. In related studies in the ECL&SP, higher
abundances were found inside marine reserves for all three species.
In addition, a greater biomass exists for the grouper directly outside
of the reserve than in other areas of the Exumas, suggesting that
the fish grow larger before leaving the reserve. This greater biomass
supports fisheries directly as well as indirectly through enhancement
of reproductive success. Biodiversity is also higher within reserves
than outside them, as is the quality of genetic traits and life
The government of the Bahamas has recently set aside
five more sites for reserve protection, more than doubling the number
of marine reserves in the country. Over the next 3 years, the Bahamian
government has committed to expanding this marine reserve network
to include 20% of marine habitats. Following the Bahamian lead,
the U.S. has drafted an Action Plan that will designate 20% of U.S.
coral reefs to become marine reserves by 2010.
PIMS/CMRC is located in the Exuma Cays,
An aerial picture of the
PIMS/CMRC on Lee Stocking Island, Exuma Cays.
CMRC has conducted and supported
marine research in the Caribbean for over 20
years, and is taking a lead role in site assessment,
monitoring, and development of community-based
management for the marine reserves. This research
is important to the U.S. and the entire Caribbean
region not only because information obtained
through this research is directly applicable
to fishery management locally but also because
the different life history stages of many species
do not adhere to international boundaries. For
example, protection and enhancement of a species
like spiny lobster in the Bahamas may have direct
and/or indirect impacts on fisheries in the
Florida Keys. In addition, many of the findings
from marine reserve research in the Caribbean
are applicable to the development of marine
reserves anywhere in the world. CMRC recognizes
the importance of marine reserve research and
plans on continued support of these projects
in the future.