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Study shows drifting fish larvae allow marine reserves to rebuild fisheries

CORVALLIS, Ore. Marine ecologists at Oregon State University have shown for the first time that tiny fish larvae can drift with ocean currents and "re-seed" fish stocks significant distances away more than 100 miles in a new study from Hawaii.

The findings add credibility to what scientists have believed for some time, but until now been unable to directly document. The study also provides a significant demonstration of the ability of marine reserves to rebuild fishery stocks in areas outside the reserves.

The research was published this week in PLoS One, a scientific journal.

"We already know that marine reserves will grow larger fish and some of them will leave that specific area, what we call spillover," said Mark Hixon, a professor of marine biology at OSU. "Now we've clearly shown that fish larvae that were spawned inside marine reserves can drift with currents and replenish fished areas long distances away.

"This is a direct observation, not just a model, that successful marine reserves can sustain fisheries beyond their borders," he said. "That's an important result that should help resolve some skepticism about reserves. And the life cycle of our study fish is very similar to many species of marine fish, including rockfishes and other species off Oregon. The results are highly relevant to other regions."

The findings were based on the creation in 1999 of nine marine protected areas on the west coast of the "big island" of Hawaii. They were set up in the face of serious declines of a beautiful tropical fish called yellow tang, which formed the basis for an important trade in the aquarium industry.

"This fishery was facing collapse about 10 years ago," Hixon said. "Now, after the creation of marine reserves, the fishery is doing well."

The yellow tang was an ideal fish to help answer the question of larval dispersal because once its larvae settle onto a reef and begin to grow, they

Contact: Mark Hixon
Oregon State University

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