Scientists examine how forest conservation helps coral reefs in Fiji

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Researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa (UH Mānoa), WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), and other groups are finding out how forest conservation in Fiji can minimize the impact of human activities on coral reefs and their fish populations.

Authors of a recently published study in the journal Scientific Reports have employed innovative modeling tools to pinpoint specific locations on the land where conservation actions would lead to the highest benefits for downstream coral reefs in terms of mitigating harm to coral communities and the associated reef fish populations.

The researchers chose to focus on Fiji’s Kubulau District, where the indigenous landowners are already on the move to manage their resources with a ridge-to-reef management plan.

Human activities on land often affect marine ecosystems negatively, and human-related impacts on Fiji are a danger to more than 25 percent of the total global reef area. Expansion of commercial agriculture, logging, mining, and coastal development can mean danger for coral reefs and their associated fisheries through significant increases in sediments and nutrients runoff.The consequent reef degradation has a direct impact on food security, human wellbeing, and cultural practices in tropical island communities around the world.

To determine where management and conservation efforts would have the most impact, the researchers decided to build a fine-scale, linked land and sea model that combines the existing land-use with coral reef condition and fish biomass.

The research team then decided to replicate various future land-use and climate change scenarios to discover areas in key watershed locations where conservation would yield the most benefit to downstream coral reef systems. In each simulated scenario, coral reef impacts were minimized when native forest was protected or restored.

“The results of this study can be used by the village chiefs and the resource management committee in Kubulau to provide a geographic focus to their management actions,” said Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai, the Director of the WCS Fiji Country Program.

These methods also have applications far beyond Kubulau and since many native island communities are preparing to revitalize customary ridge to reef management systems and governments are also showing more interest in applying an integrated land-sea planning approach.

Dr. Jade Delevaux from the University of Hawai’i and lead author of the study said, “This novel tool relies on two freely available software packages and can be used in open access geographic information systems (GIS). As more and more remote sensing and bathymetry data become freely available to serve as data inputs, the model can serve even very data-poor regions around the world to allow for better management of linked land and sea areas.”

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