While the species level effects of marine reserves are widely recognized, community level shifts due to marine reserves have only recently been documented. Protection from fishing of top predators may lead to trophic cascades, which have community-wide implications. Disease may act in a similar manner, regulating population levels of dominant species within a community. Two decades of data from the Channel Islands National Park Service's Kelp Forest Monitoring database allowed us to compare the effects of fishing and urchin disease on rocky reef community patterns and dynamics. Different size-frequency distributions of urchins inside and outside of reserves indicated reduced predation on urchins at sites where fishing removes urchin predators. Rocky reefs inside reserves were more likely to support kelp forests than were fished areas. We suggest that this results from cascading effects of the fishery on urchin predators outside the reserves, which releases herbivores (urchins) from predation. After periods of prevalent urchin disease, the reef community shifted more towards kelp forest assemblages. Specific groups of algae and invertebrates were associated with kelp forest and barrens communities. The community dynamics leading to transitions between kelp forests and barrens are driven by both fishing and disease; however the fishery effect was of greater magnitude. This study further confirms the importance of marine reserves not only for fisheries conservation, but also for the conservation of historically dominant community types.
Additional publication details
Effects of marine reserves and urchin disease on southern Californian rocky reef communities