Damselfish Study May Help Improve Marine Reserves

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 13, 2004

In recent years scientific studies have shown that marine environments made off-limits to fishing fleets are a boon to the fish that swim there. The question is: What parts of the ocean are the best to close for the benefit of the fish and those who eat them?

Suzanne Dorsey is an assistant professor of biology at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. All too often, she says, politics drive decisions on where to locate marine reserves, which saps them of their full potential.

"We really need science to step up and provide hard quantitative data so we can concentrate our efforts in terms of conservation," she said.

Dorsey is studying the reproductive success of bicolor damselfish (Stegastes partitus) at different habitats in the Caribbean as part of her efforts to provide fisheries managers with the data they need to make marine reserves more effective.

According to Stephen Palumbi, a marine biologist at Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, improved knowledge on where to establish marine reserves may help recover depleted fish stocks outside the reserve boundaries.

For example, "for widespread species, some of the population may be producing offspring and some may be sinks—full of adults that are not able to reproduce. Knowing where the sources and sinks are would be very handy," he said.

Scientists can also lend a hand to fisheries managers by providing data on how species' use of space and information on how all the species in a habitat are connected in marine communities, according to Palumbi. In 2002 Palumbi authored a Pew Oceans Commission report on the design and implementation of marine protected areas.

Current studies show "the numbers of fish and diversity and individual size all go up pretty strongly inside the borders of a reserve," Palumbi said. "What's less clear is how all that bounty inside reserves impacts overall fishing outside the reserves."

Damselfish Studies

Dorsey chose to work with the bicolor damselfish because they are not considered a threatened or endangered species. Thus, they are a reasonable candidate for manipulation by researchers.

Also, the basic damselfish biology is well known, so researchers can begin to ask more complex questions that are relevant to other species living in the coral reef ecosystem, Dorsey said.

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