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Ocean wilderness areas are living time machines

Ocean wilderness is rapidly disappearing due to widespread fishing practices all over the world. A new, large study of the global state of marine coral reef wilderness has found that remote ocean wilderness regions sustain fish populations much better than many of the world’s best marine reserves.

The mean biomass of fish stocks in coral reefs located far away from people and urban markets was over one-third higher than the values found in the largest, oldest, and best-managed marine reserves located closer to the shore.

“This study confirmed that wilderness areas protect fish far better than even the most sustainable fisheries and reserves,” said study lead author Dr. Tim McClanahan, a senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society

“It scares us to think what is being lost when wilderness is reduced. The findings are a call to designate the last remaining marine wilderness as areas needing special status and protection – global ocean strongholds. To ensure that all coral reef fish species are protected from fishing and possible extinction, we need to focus on wilderness alongside 30 percent closures in nearshore areas.”

A recent global initiative, 30X30, aims to protect at least 30 percent of the land and sea by 2030. However, until now only about two percent of coral reefs are fully protected in marine reserves. The current study suggests that, besides protecting marine ecosystem in organized reserves, areas of marine wilderness should also be protected, particularly since they are home to larger, space-requiring species such as sharks, groupers, jacks, or snappers. 

“Observing and surveying fishes for many years has made it clear to me that many, and particularly big fishes, require lots of space to survive and thrive,” said study co-author Alan Friedlander, a researcher at the National Geographic Society and the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology.

“This collaboration and analyses with my colleagues have made it clear how this need for open marine wilderness is so pervasive. This robust and extensive dataset has allowed us to confirm what many of us have observed for year, that remote marine wilderness areas are like time machines that allow us to observe the ocean of the past in order to protect the future.”

The study is published in the journal Fish and Fisheries.  

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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