SUFB 115: Quantifying Multiple Stressors For More Effective Marine Protected Areas

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When we here at SUFB discuss marine protected areas (MPAs), we often focus on the science behind these regions. After all, if you don’t develop a protected area according to the best available scientific evidence, can you really expect the population in that area to grow more abundant? Unfortunately, the design and development process seems to rely just as heavily on anecdotal observations as it does quantitative scientific data. After all, it’s a lot cheaper and easier to generalize an area as “healthy and productive” or “unhealthy and degraded” than it is to actually measure its productivity or degradation.

In the spirit of hard, quantitative analyses, we bring to you today a paper entitled “The Challenge of Planning Conservation Strategies in Threatened Seascapes: Understanding the Role of Fine Scale Assessments of Community Response to Cumulative Human Pressures.” Published just this week in PLOS ONE, this study examines the distribution and relative contribution of small-scale stressors to vulnerable, rocky habitats in the Ionian Sea. Located in the central Mediterranean, this region is an excellent example of critical marine habitat whose ecological state is closely linked with surrounding coastal communities and human activity.

Though the relationship between multiple environmental and anthropogenic stressors can be complex, the authors observed three primary stressors that correlated with lower taxon richness and β-diversity: proximity of a sample to the harbor, water quality, and the relative extension of beaches. Taxon richness and β-diversity are a couple of different measures of species diversity, distribution, and abundance, so low levels tend to imply degraded or less diverse habitats. The three primary drivers correspond to greater amounts of sewage discharge, harbor activities, and potential alterations of local sedimentation regimes in rocky, vulnerable habitats.

Small-scale studies such as this one have the luxury of being able to specifically analyze and quantify specific environmental stressors on marine ecosystems. While large-scale studies may be able to provide a more holistic view of a given system, it’s important to complement these with fine-scale studies that can provide a little more detail as to what specifically is altering or impacting the system. This way, we can support our general discussions on the “health of a region” or the “productivity of an ecosystem” with the cold hard data that scientists love.

 

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