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Marine Protection is 'Inadequate,' Say Experts

Aug 28, 2014 04:42 PM EDT

Many conservationists will always say that there is no such thing as "enough" species protection. However, new research has revealed just how the current level of marine life protection isn't even adequate enough to allow threatened ecosystems to recover.

That is, at least according to a study recently published in the journal Ecology Letters, which details how parts of the ocean dedicated to protecting species that perform key ecological functions are in desperate need of expansion.

"The recognition that all species are not the same and that some play more important and different roles in ocean ecology prompted this new investigation. The study was expected to identify regions with vulnerable fish populations, something that has been sidetracked by the past species richness focus," study co-author Tim McClanahan explained in a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) release.

"If you lose species with key functions, then you undermine the ability of the ocean to provide food and other ecological services," he added. "Our analysis identifies these gaps and should provide the basis to accelerate the protection of ocean functions."

McClanahan and his cohorts compiled a global database on tropical fish populations from 169 locations around the globe, highlighting species that have been found to be ecological keystones through past research. They compared this data to more than 6,000 key species with known distribution maps.

Alarmingly, they found that many homes of these important fish were located far outside existing marine protected areas.

Areas of high vulnerability included the coastal waters of Chile, the eastern tropical Pacific, and the eastern Atlantic Ocean - where a very finite number of fish perform key roles, and few, if any, share the same role. In this way, if one species were to decline, the entire ecosystem could crumble.

With regions like these, the authors argue, all fish are not created equal, and more key species should take precedence when being considered for protection.

Caleb McClennen, Executive Director of WCS's Marine Program, added that "this decision theory framework can help marine managers make recommendations about where to place marine protected areas that expand and protect the ocean's ability to provide key services."

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