A new, widespread study of the global state of marine coral reef wilderness by WCS, NGS, and university collaborators found that remote ocean wilderness areas are sustaining fish populations much better than some of the world’s best marine reserves. Findings show that remote reefs protect three times as many stocks as marine reserves, and shelter many important and threatened species that require large spaces, like sharks, groupers, jacks, and snappers.

Marine wilderness is rapidly disappearing in the face of widespread fishing. Scientists examined coral reefs located 4-plus hours from people and 9-plus hours travel distances from urban markets. They found that the mean biomass of fish stocks in those remote wilderness areas was about one third higher than the values found in even the best-managed, oldest, and largest marine reserves located nearer shore to people.

A recent initiative by the global community, “30×30” seeks to protect and conserve at least 30 percent of the land and sea by 2030. Progress toward this goal is underway, but currently as little as 2 percent of coral reefs are being fully protected in marine reserves. These findings suggest that what authors termed “best-practice seascapes” need to be deployed alongside ocean wilderness strongholds to truly achieve global security for coral reef fish biodiversity.

“This study confirmed that wilderness areas protect fish far better than even the most sustainable fisheries and reserves,” said lead author Dr. Tim McClanahan, Senior Scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “It scares us to think what is being lost when wilderness is reduced. The findings are a call to designate the last remaining marine wilderness as areas needing special status and protection – global ocean strongholds. To ensure that all coral reef fish species are protected from fishing and possible extinction, we need to focus on wilderness alongside 30 percent closures in nearshore areas.”

While the focus on 30 percent coverage of marine reserves is ongoing, the need to also find and protect marine wilderness remains a high priority. Findings show that the two approaches complement each other well, as marine reserves protect more resilient species while wilderness protects space-requiring species. Previous studies have shown that many ecoregions lack wilderness, and this could result in the losses of important species with large space requirements. Protection of wilderness areas needs to be coupled with active conservation interventions to truly make an impact.

Alan Friedlander of Pristine Seas said “Observing and surveying fishes for many years has made it clear to me that many, and particularly big fishes, require lots of space to survive and thrive. This collaboration and analyses with my colleagues have made it clear how this need for open marine wilderness is so pervasive. This robust and extensive dataset has allowed us to confirm what many of us have observed for year, that remote marine wilderness are like time machines that allow us to observe the ocean of the past in order to protect the future.”

The work is a large collaboration of US, British, and French marine biologists. The authors are Tim McClanahan of Wildlife Conservation Society, Alan Friedlander of the National Geographic Pristine Seas Program, Laurent Wantiez of the University of New Caledonia, Nick Graham of the University of Lancaster, Henrich Bruggemann and Pascale Chabanet of the University of Reunion.

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Dr. McClanahan’s work is generously supported by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Vibrant Oceans Initiative. Funding for the individual field studies included support to T.R. McClanahan by United States Agency for International Development, the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association Marine Science for Management Program, and the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme of the Department for International Development (DFID), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). The University of Hawaii Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research and the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program contributed to surveys of the US Pacific Islands, funded by the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program. The government of New Caledonia supported surveys in the South and North provinces. This research in France’s Iles Eparses program was supported with the financial support of CNRS (French Centre National Recherche Scientifique), IRD (French Research Institute for Sustainable Development), AAMP (Agence des Aires Marines Protégées) and Veolia and the logistic support of TAAF (Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises). The Reunion Island study was supported by RNMR (Reserve Nationale Marine de La Réunion) with the financial support of DEAL (Direction de l’Environnement de l’Aménagement et du Logement). The National Geographic Society and Pristine Seas program donors supported this effort through the work of Alan Friedlander. We thank NOAA and specifically Robert Schroeder and Ivor Williams for either data, logistic, or fieldwork assistance for this study.