Marine Protected Areas in the Western Indian Ocean – can they help save our fish and corals?

Corals and fish at Misali, Pemba, Tanzania
A barrier reef in front of the Le Morne mountain in Mauritius
Fishers using destructive and illegal drag netting in Zanzibar

It is amazing how a tiny little organism like the coral is responsible for defining to a large extent the nature of inshore coastal areas. One group of these tiny animals secrete calcium carbonate which form the coral reefs. These hard structures line long distances of the shore in the Western Indian Ocean. Sometimes the reefs are almost right next to the shoreline, and sometimes they are much further from the land. Sometimes the reefs form a barrier against the waves coming in from the open ocean, so that there are calm lagoons between the barrier reefs and the land. Other places coral reefs are deep and never show above the surface, not even at extreme low tides. Whatever the case, these coral reefs are very, very important to millions of people. Yet it is no secret that these reefs are in danger because of many pressures on them. Today coral reef degradation in the Western Indian Ocean is a terrible threat, and the consequences of a collapse of the reef systems may be worse than we can ever imagine. This ‘burning issue’ needs to be addressed, and we need to share whatever knowledge we may have in the hope of reversing the trends of destruction that we are currently witnessing.

Coral reefs are an extremely important natural resource, supplying food and income for millions of people in the tropics. One of the economically most important resource humans extract from the marine environment is fish, but another industry linked to healthy ecosystems with increasing importance is tourism. Coral reefs can also provide a number of non extractive services to the local community, like natural harbours, sites for aquaculture, and biological support for important pelagic species. One way of protecting these valuable resources against increased human pressure and other threats such as climate change is through the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), with one of the main goals to maintain biodiversity in the long term. However, the effectiveness of an MPA varies with many factors such as the basic design, the existence of management plans and the collaboration with the local communities.