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Studies Show Marine Reserves Can Replenish Fisheries

Listen Listen to Christopher Joyce's report.

photo galleryView a photo gallery of St. Lucia and its marine reserve.

St. Lucia fisherman
Fishermen now catch 3 pounds of fish for every 2 pounds they used to catch before marine reserves were established in St. Lucia.
Photo: Fiona Gell

Dec. 3, 2001 -- Wildlife reserves, where animals take precedence over humans, are mostly located on land. Recently, though, conservationists have been creating marine refuges in the ocean, places that forbid commercial and recreational fishing.

And the new studies suggest their efforts are paying off. On All Things Considered, NPR's Christopher Joyce reports that fish in these reserves are thriving and that they can become nurseries for replenishing nearby fisheries.

In his report, Joyce talks about two compelling pieces of evidence described in a study published in the Nov. 30 issue of the journal Science. One of the marine reserves highlighted in the article is located near St. Lucia, a speck of an island in the Eastern Caribbean. Dr. Callum Roberts, co-author of the study, says generations of fishermen have fished there using hand lines or nets, but by the mid-1990s, the reefs became almost barren. So conservationists cordoned off an 11-mile stretch of reef that prohibited fishing.

"The fishermen were skeptical at first," Roberts said. "They worried this would make their lives harder rather than better, and for the first couple of years they were right."

But now, five years later, the refuge is bursting with fish. "Catches near the reserve are up between 46 and 90 percent, and the fishermen are happy," he observed.

Roberts discovered from St. Lucia reserve that when an area is closed off to fishing, the fish inside it live longer and grow larger. And because big fish produce more offspring than smaller ones, the extra fish are transported out of the refuge on ocean currents, making the reserve a nursery for nearby fisheries.

Smallmouth grunts
Smallmouth grunts like these are a mainstay of St. Lucia's reef fishery.
Photo: Callum Roberts

The phenomenon found at St. Lucia was also discovered in Florida where a section of coast was declared a security zone and was cordoned off 40 years ago by NASA for its rocket launch program. "Since the mid-1980s, there has been this growing number of world record-sized black drum, red drum and spotted sea trout in the area adjacent to the reserve," Robert said.

This replenishing condition -- referred to as "spillover effect" -- has now been documented by scientists. By tagging and counting fish inside the reserve, biologists were able to discover that the refuge can replenish fish population located as far as 60 miles away.

These new findings are some of the first hard evidence that marine reserves actually export commercial fish, said John Burke, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Burke also said that picking the right spot is important to ensure success. "The fish that move out of a reserve have to have some place to move to where they can again set up shop and be protected from their predators and find plenty of their food," he added.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has currently designated 13 marine sanctuaries. Burke said the scientists are now watching whether they, too, will develop into fish nurseries.

In Depth

browse for more NPR coverage Browse for other NPR stories about wildlife refuges.

Other Resources

• Learn more about the federal initiative to create marine reserves at the Marine Protected Areas of the United States Web site.

• Visit the official Web site of National Marine Fisheries Service.