Nick is a senior research fellow in the Centre, formally based at Newcastle University in the UK. His research is focused on sustainable use and long-term persistence of coral reef ecosystems in Australia and the tropics globally. He addresses large-scale ecological questions related to climate change, fisheries and natural resource management. This has included assessing the impacts of coral bleaching on coral reef fish and fisheries, assessing recovery trajectories of fish communities within no-take marine protected areas and working with social scientists and economists to develop appropriate management options under differing environmental, societal and political settings.
There is an emerging awareness that marine wilderness is both quantitatively and qualitatively different from the small marine protected areas that are steadily dotting coastlines. Here I present reef fish biomass and composition in remote atolls of the Chagos Archipelago, central Indian Ocean and place this reference site in the context of reef fish communities under differing management across the western Indian Ocean (WIO) and globally. Reef fish biomass in Chagos dwarfs that of the rest of the WIO, with mean biomass estimates over 6 times higher than the highest recorded in no-take marine protected areas in the rest of the WIO. Furthermore, the contribution of higher trophic levels and larger individuals to the standing fish biomass is far greater in Chagos. The highest reported reef fish biomass estimates from the remotest reefs of the Pacific, Caribbean and Indian Ocean are comparable, however the composition of the fish community varies greatly. These remote wilderness areas are clearly unique, however care needs to be taken not to make the same mistakes in the oceans that we made on land; protecting remote areas of little current commercial value and allowing biodiversity and ecosystem services to be lost in areas of greater human use. Despite the relatively modest increases in fish biomass in small MPAs and gear restricted areas in the WIO, clear changes in ecological processes are detectable. Importantly, these changes can be visualized as ecological switchpoints along a continuum of fishable biomass, enabling reference points to be set for ecosystem based fisheries management.