Variation in Responses of Fishes across Multiple Reserves within a Network of Marine Protected Areas in Temperate Waters
Meta-analyses of field studies have shown that biomass, density, species richness, and size of organisms protected by no-take marine reserves generally increase over time. The magnitude and timing of changes in these response variables, however, vary greatly and depend upon the taxonomic groups protected, size and type of reserve, oceanographic regime, and time since the reserve was implemented. We conducted collaborative, fishery-independent surveys of fishes for seven years in and near newly created marine protected areas (MPAs) in central California, USA. Results showed that initially most MPAs contained more and larger fishes than associated reference sites, likely due to differences in habitat quality. The differences between MPAs and reference sites did not greatly change over the seven years of our study, indicating that reserve benefits will be slow to accumulate in California's temperate eastern boundary current. Fishes in an older reserve that has been closed to fishing since 1973, however, were significantly more abundant and larger than those in associated reference sites. This indicates that reserve benefits are likely to accrue in the California Current ecosystem, but that 20 years or more may be needed to detect significant changes in response variables that are due to MPA implementation. Because of the high spatial and temporal variability of fish recruitment patterns, long-term monitoring is needed to identify positive responses of fishes to protection in the diverse set of habitats in a dynamic eastern boundary current. Qualitative estimates of response variables, such as would be obtained from an expert opinion process, are unlikely to provide an accurate description of MPA performance. Similarly, using one species or one MPA as an indicator is unlikely to provide sufficient resolution to accurately describe the performance of multiple MPAs.