Biophysical and anthropogenic influences on the status of Tonga's coral reefs and reef fish fishery

Smallhorn-West, Patrick, Gordon, Sophie, Stone, Karen, Ceccarelli, Daniela, Malimali, Siola'a, Halafihi, Tu'ikolongahau, Wyatt, Mathew, Bridge, Tom, Pressey, Robert, and Jones, Geoffrey (2020) Biophysical and anthropogenic influences on the status of Tonga's coral reefs and reef fish fishery. PLoS One, 15 (11). e0241146.

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Despite increasing threats to Tonga's coral reefs from stressors that are both local (e.g. overfishing and pollution) and global (e.g. climate change), there is yet to be a systematic assessment of the status of the country's coral reef ecosystem and reef fish fishery stocks. Here, we provide a national ecological assessment of Tonga's coral reefs and reef fish fishery using ecological survey data from 375 sites throughout Tonga's three main island groups (Ha'apai, Tongatapu and Vava'u), represented by seven key metrics of reef health and fish resource status. Boosted regression tree analysis was used to assess and describe the relative importance of 11 socio-environmental variables associated with these key metrics of reef condition. Mean live coral cover across Tonga was 18%, and showed a strong increase from north to south correlated with declining sea surface temperature, as well as with increasing distance from each provincial capital. Tongatapu, the southernmost island group, had 2.5 times greater coral cover than the northernmost group, Vava'u (24.9% and 10.4% respectively). Reef fish species richness and density were comparable throughout Tongatapu and the middle island group, Ha'apai (similar to 35 species/transect and similar to 2500 fish/km(2)), but were significantly lower in Vava'u (similar to 24 species/transect and similar to 1700 fish/km(2)). Spatial patterns in the reef fish assemblage were primarily influenced by habitat-associated variables (slope, structural complexity, and hard coral cover). The biomass of target reef fish was greatest in Ha'apai (similar to 820 kg/ha) and lowest in Vava'u (similar to 340 kg/ha), and was negatively associated with higher human influence and fishing activity. Overall mean reef fish biomass values suggest that Tonga's reef fish fishery can be classified as moderately to heavily exploited, with 64% of sites having less than 500 kg/ha. This study provides critical baseline ecological information for Tonga's coral reefs that will: (1) facilitate ongoing management and research; and (2) enable accurate reporting on conservation targets locally and internationally.

Item ID: 66101
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 1932-6203
Copyright Information: © 2020 Smallhorn-West et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funders: Australian Research Council (ARC), National Geographic Society (NGS)
Projects and Grants: ARC DECRA Fellowship DE180100746, NGS CP-137ER-17
Date Deposited: 23 Dec 2020 07:33
FoR Codes: 41 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 4104 Environmental management > 410406 Natural resource management @ 100%
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