Critical areas are vital to the survival and sustainability of marine habitats. These areas may provide secure and essential sources of larvae to enhance the replenishment and recovery of reefs damaged by bleaching, hurricanes or other events. They include high-priority conservation targets, such as nesting areas, nursery habitats, migration routes, or refuges from large-scale disturbances.
When identifying areas for protection and focusing management activities, it is important to include Critical Areas in the design of the MPA (or network) to promote healthy ecological systems capable of responding to, and sustaining, different kinds of stress.
Marine communities are highly interdependent on a variety of habitats and ecological processes, so it is important that a holistic approach is taken to both MPA design and management. Making sure to include all habitats important to the diverse life histories of reef organisms is fundamental. Such habitats include foraging grounds, breeding grounds, nursery areas, and migration routes.
It is also important to provide special protection to areas that are known to be sources of larvae for other areas (i.e., source populations). If these areas are poorly managed, areas far beyond the site are likely to be affected as their source of larvae will be compromised along with their ability to recover from disturbance.
In addition to representative habitats, protection of ecological processes, such as herbivory and predation, should be a high priority for managers. Recent research has shown that presence of large herbivorous fish (e.g., some species of parrotfish) plays an important role in a coral’s ability to recover after a major die-off or disturbance. Recent studies have also demonstrated the importance of predator populations in maintaining healthy herbivore populations, making the case for preserving the trophic structure of a particular site or reef community. Areas that serve as important habitat to herbivores and predators (i.e., critical areas) should be a priority for inclusion in a protected strategy.
Resistant and Resilient Communities
The survival prospects of coral reef communities (e.g., as indicated by their resistance and resilience to mass bleaching) should receive substantial consideration in the selection and design of MPAs in the face of large-scale, climate-related events. Areas that survive stressful events (e.g., mass bleaching) should be considered as critical areas to be included in a management framework. Communities that have large, old coral colonies (i.e., demonstrating ability to withstand disturbances over time) and those that demonstrate successful recruitment are also good candidates for focused management.
R2 Training Manual Module 3 — Principles and Components of Resilience (download pdf, 333k)