Coral Reefs Need Some Species More Than Others

Written by on September 26, 2014 in Coral Reefs, Marine Life
Reef fish.

Reef fish. Photo credit: Louiz Rocha, NOAA.

Most efforts to protect fish have focused on saving the largest number of species, often ignoring the role that these species play and the relative importance of those roles in the ecosystem. A new study from the Wildlife Conservation Society reports that marine protected areas (MPAs) need to be expanded in order to protect species that provide “difficult-to-replace ecological functions.”

One of the key issues is that many species that play some of the most important roles in the ecosystems are also food for millions of people. This study reveals that many of these species are not protected by the world’s current network of MPAs.

“If you lose species with key functions, then you undermine the ability of the ocean to provide food and other ecological services, which is a wake up call to protect these vulnerable species and locations,” Dr. Tim McClanahan, WCS Senior Conservationist and a co-author of the study said in a news release. “Our analysis identifies these gaps and should provide the basis to accelerate the protection of ocean functions.”

The study, led by Professor David Mouillot from the University of Montpellier, examined the roles of over six thousand coral reef fish species in 169 locations worldwide.

Coral outcrop in the Great Barrier Reef. Photo credit: Toby Hudson, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Coral outcrop in the Great Barrier Reef. Photo credit: Toby Hudson, CC BY-SA 3.0.

“What we often assume is that if we lose one species on a reef, there are many others that can step in and take over their job,” Professor Bellwood from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) and study co-author explained in a news release.

But, in many cases, a single species carries out a unique and essential role that could be irreplaceable, like the parrotfish, for example. There is only one species of parrotfish on the Great Barrier Reef that “regularly performs the task of scraping and cleaning inshore coral reefs.”

When it comes to protecting our oceans, “It’s not about numbers of species,” Professor David Mouillot said. “Biodiversity is important and desirable in an ecosystem, but it is not necessarily the key to being safe and secure.”

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Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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