Conservation Now: Blogging from IUCN 2016

Fish-Spawning Aggregations Should Be Considered for Key Biodiversity Areas

Camouflage grouper aggregating to spawn in French Polynesia at one of the few remaining known unfished aggregations for this species. Photo credit: Yvonne Sadovy.

By Claudio Campagna and Yvonne Sadovy
September 20, 2016

[NOTE: This is the sixth in a series of blogs by WCS staff who attended the IUCN World Conservation Congress that took place September 1 — 10 in Honolulu, Hawaii]

An important alliance came together at the IUCN World Conservation Congress to enhance global conservation efforts by highlighting internationally important sites in need of urgent protection. The alliance — a consortium of 11 conservation organizations that include the Wildlife Conservation Society, Birdlife International, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and NatureServe, among others — will serve to identify, map, monitor and conserve Key Biodiversity Areas, or KBAs.

The effort, a decade in development, is intended to cut through the many competing conservation regimes to help fulfill the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

Importantly, the KBA standard includes considerations critical to mapping new areas for protection, including sites important for species biodiversity and those that might not have been considered before. KBAs are chosen according to criteria consistent across the globe, including thresholds for two key conservation priorities: vulnerability and irreplaceability.

Good examples of key biological processes under KBA categories, and that have not, to date, been regularly included in protected areas and that are relevant to our marine work include spawning aggregations, nursery grounds, breeding colonies, and important migration routes. For many commercially important species, these are increasingly compromised by uncontrolled fishing or other anthropogenic impacts.

Fish spawning sites and times are particularly relevant. Unlike the conspicuous breeding colonies of birds and mammals, spawning aggregations of fish go unseen by most of us. But like bird colonies and turtle nesting beaches, they remain consistent from year to year. Therefore, once these sites are discovered they understandably become a target for fishing.

Some of the largest known aggregations have contained tens of thousands of fish (camouflage groupers, for example or, historically, Nassau grouper). Typically we know of only a few such sites across a given vast reef area so each one is likely to play an important part in the future of such species; they are the only known times and places that they reproduce so are essential for population regeneration.

If not managed, such aggregation sites gradually disappear along with the populations they support. The most famous case for fishes is that of the Nassau grouper, Epinephelus striatus, which is now so threatened from aggregation-fishing that it has been listed under the United States Endangered Species Act. Among coral reef fishes, more than 60 percent of aggregations for which we have sufficient information have declined, and some have completely disappeared from overfishing.

Fish are poorly understood as wildlife and the language we use in describing these animals commodifies them with expressions such as “fish stock” and “harvesting.” Conservation of fish species, particularly of bony fishes, requires a renewed commitment and a recognition that their populations also have limits, just as for other animals and plants.

To conserve fish spawning aggregations we can either protect the spawning sites or cease fishing during the spawning season. Protection of spawning sites and/or seasons has been part of the conservation planning in WCS focal sites from Fiji to Belize and such protection is an important part of protecting not only the ecosystems but also the productivity of local fisheries.

Fish-spawning aggregations, then, make a good candidate for KBAs. We must hope that with such a newly recognized designation, presently threatened spawning groups can avoid the fate of the Nassau grouper as we replenish populations before their reproduction becomes unduly compromised.

If we can do that, we may find that we are well on the road to meeting our joint obligations under the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

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Dr. Claudio Campagna is a marine conservationist with the Patagonia Program of WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Dr. Yvonne Sadovy is a professor of biological sciences at the University of Hong Kong. Together they co-chair the IUCN Species Survival Commission Marine Conservation Sub-Committee.

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