"This tiny species that nobody eats or even cares about has a lot to tell us about the health and welfare of this critical ecosystem, an ecosystem that may be playing a crucial role in absorbing greenhouse gases, an ecosystem that certainly is crucial for the economy of a tourism-based nation [such as Barbados or Grenada]," Dorsey said.
Dorsey's study focuses on bicolor damselfish populations and reproductive success at two different kinds of coral reef habitats in the Caribbeana near-shore fringing reef on Barbados and a deep offshore reef in Grenada.
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"These two environments are quite different from the perspective of the fish," she said. For example, there are more predators on the deeper reefs, but the near-shore reefs experience higher wave action and greater pollution.
Preliminary data indicates that the bicolor damselfish are about 60 percent less productive on the deeper outer reefs than on the inshore reefs, which is most likely related to the lower density of predators, though Dorsey said she has yet to directly prove this.
The implication of this finding, Dorsey said, is that even though near-shore reefs visually appear more degraded than the pristine offshore reefs, concentrating efforts to protect them may actually do more to conserve the overall reproductive success of reef fish.
Dorsey's damselfish study is ongoing. Each summer she spends three months in the Caribbean. She shares her data with managers at marine reserves in Barbados and Grenada, though she says how the reserve managers "turn around and use that data is limited," because funding for marine reserves is an ongoing battle.
For example, Dorsey said, the marine reserve in Barbados has been opened to recreation and fishing use to pay for its operation.
According to Palumbi, cooperation from scientists, politicians, and social and economic organizations is needed for the marine reserve system to work effectively.
"There's no reason biological, economic, social, and political criteria can't be met in setting up these reserves," he said. "It's a little harder to do that it involves negotiating with and talking and listening to [different] points of view, but in the end this results in setting up a protected area that makes sense."
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