Marine protected areas around the world are failing to protect most of the evolutionary diversity of the world's coral and fish, a new study has found.
The study into marine parks was conducted by an international team of researchers and found marine protected areas were not adequately protecting the evolutionary history of corals and fish, which stretches back 7,160 million years and 3,586 million years respectively.
These figures may seem outlandish, but there are in fact true numbers, describing the accumulative amount of evolutionary time, and not the absolute amount.
For example 7,160 million years is the accumulative amount of evolution experienced by all the organisms in the particular tree.
Focusing on 805 species of coral and 450 species of labrid fish, the team, which included scientists from James Cook University, Queensland, and Université de Montpellier in France, calculated how much of the species' geographic range was covered by the marine protected area network.
After assessing how much evolutionary history was encompassed by all the species on a shared evolutionary tree branch, they found that the world's network of marine protected areas covered less than 2 per cent of the total known evolutionary history of corals, and less than 18 per cent of the evolutionary history of fish.
"It was quite disturbing because I didn't expect values to be as bad as they were," said report co-author Professor David Bellwood, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.
Marine protected areas were created worldwide to counteract human impacts and maintain the integrity of coral reefs.
Originally their purpose was to conserve species diversity, as opposed to evolutionary diversity, but the report argues the latter is a critical component of biodiversity.
It states that the layout of global marine protected areas is "largely contingent on local socioeconomic conditions and history rather than regional or global considerations".
"This is the problem," said Professor Bellwood. "We tend to put marine protected areas, to a greater or lesser extent, where humans want them and not where they are needed."
Now that the problem had been realised, it was time to address it by placing marine protected areas in the right places, he said.
"The issue is there is a lack of protection in key areas. Say you've got two species that recently diverged and one that diverged 20 million years ago. The two that diverge recently have the same information, while the other is carrying 20 million years of independent evolution," he said.
"If we lose that species, it's far more important than losing one of the more recent species. Not all species are equal, these old diverged different species are far more valuable than we think."
Different bodies of water presented different needs, he said, noting that the Atlantic ocean "is crying out" for greater protections of its coral, while, in the Pacific it was fish that required attention.
On the global scale, Australia led the way when it came to marine protected areas; it was other areas that were in trouble, Professor Bellwood said.
"Ninety per cent of the world's coral reefs don't have adequate protection. The trouble is, a lot of declines in reefs are happening even with marine protected areas.
"These areas protect against fishing and extractive activity, but they are not able to protect reefs against bleaching, sediment input and climate change."
Professor Bellwood said climate change was the number one problem for reefs around the world and the impacts were still yet to fully bite. The next 50 years would involve "serious impacts on coral reefs", he said.
SOURCE: smh.com.au - http://www.smh.com.au/environment/marine-protected-areas-around-the-world-do-not-support-corals-and-fish-researchers-20160114-gm5o9z.html
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