Coral reefs are some of the most spectacular ecosystems
on the planet.
They’re also some of the most vulnerable.
But how can we protect the reefs
and the animals and plants who rely on them?
And how can we make sure
our protected areas aren’t hurting those people who use reefs to survive?
These are some of the big questions
facing marine conservation biologists today.
Let’s take Fiji, for example.
Fiji is series of islands in the South Pacific Ocean.
To help balance the need for conservation and making a living,
scientists had suggested that instead of one big park
which provides a lot of coverage for one reef system
while leaving the rest unprotected,
a better way is to create a system of protected areas
nested together like pearls on a string.
This idea is called connectivity.
In this way, scientists can protect lots of different habitats
while not excluding people from their traditional fishing grounds.
Now, the only way this string-of-pearls kind of reserve network is going to work
is if each park is connected to other parks.
There are two main benefits to this.
First of all, insurance.
If something bad happens to one park,
say, an oil spill or coral bleaching,
then because that park is part of a system,
it can be reseeded from other parks that escaped the event.
The second benefit is representation.
By conserving many different areas,
scientists ensure that lots of different habitats get protected.
This way, they can make sure all the different marine habitats in Fiji,
such as coral reefs, mangroves, and sea-grass beds,
are all represented.
This way, we don’t unduly settle any particular village or group of people
with the economic burden of having their fishing grounds off-limits.
By sharing the cost around the communities,
they can also share the benefits.
So if we agree that rather than one big park,
we should have lots of parks
of different sizes and covering different habitats,
then scientists need to make sure those smaller parks are connected,
because if they’re not, they probably won’t be self-sustaining.
But how do we know that?
That’s where genetics and DNA come in.
By looking at how closely related
the fish in each one of these small reserves in Fiji
are to each other,
scientists can figure out
how much migration is going on among the reserves within the system.
Now it’s important to look at a variety of different species
because there’s no guarantee that what’s going on with these guys
is what’s going on with these guys.
But if we look closely and at enough species,
we can see whether or not the necklace is working.
What scientists have found so far is that, in general,
there’s a fair amount of connectivity amongst the parks within Fiji.
But it’s not just a big free-for-all;
rather, it seems that, for some species,
babies born in the far west are having a hard time
making it to the islands in the far east.
To help deal with that, conservation biologists are suggesting
that there be enough parks in both the east and the west
to keep the populations healthy.
This isn’t just in Fiji, either.
Lessons about reserve connectivity can help across the world.
In places like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea
and the Bahamas,
scientists are using a variety of tools to help understand
how individual parks can function together,
so that their sum is greater than their whole.
And this way, we can keep the beautiful necklace
that is our coral reefs, intact.