Scientists have repeatedly shown that coral reefs are negatively impacted by proximity to larger and denser human populations. However, suspecting that this was not the whole story, a team of Australian researchers recently investigated whether a socioeconomic factor—proximity of each reef to the nearest market—might also influence coral reef condition.

Indeed, they found that mathematical models could more accurately predict reef fish biomass when they included data on distance to market. Because a majority of conservation policies have not taken this variable into account when pinpointing reefs that need to be protected, these findings suggest that some management efforts may be ignoring imperiled reefs. Intriguingly, biomass was noticeably larger at reefs that were more than 14 kilometres from the nearest market. This distance appears to be a threshold beyond which fishing is not sufficiently profitable to merit the time or effort.

Together, these findings suggest that reef health may be significantly influenced not just by the presence of people, but also by the social and economic characteristics of those people. This could explain why many remote reefs are in poor shape: People may not live nearby, but travel to the reefs to harvest fish that they can sell at relatively close markets.

Anyone who has read about the ivory trade knows that market activity can have devastating effects on wildlife populations. However, the authors point out that markets can also create incentives for conservation and sustainability—as showcased by the drive for eco-friendly coffee, for example. Interdisciplinary collaborations of economists, anthropologists and conservationists will be critical for suggesting ways that ‘coral reef nations’ can use marked-based management to further reef conservation efforts. 

Cinner JE et al. 2013. Global effects of local human population density and distance to markets on the condition of coral reef fisheries. Conservation Biology 27(3):453-458.

Caitlin Kight, a freelance science editor and writer, is a visiting researcher at the University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus, UK, caitlin.r.kight@gmail.com.

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