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GBR protected from crown-of-thorns attacks by no-take zones

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22 July 2008

Reefs where fishing is not allowed are much less prone to infestation by the devastating crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS), according to a new analysis of AIMS' long-term surveys of the Great Barrier Reef.

AIMS scientist Dr Hugh Sweatman predicts that any future waves of COTS outbreaks will not be as destructive as the three waves that have affected the GBR since 1960, because the area of no-take zones on the GBR was increased from 4.5 per cent of the Reef to per cent in 2004.


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Crown-of-thorns starfish ( Acanthaster planci) .


No-take zones, regulated by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, are designated areas known as "green zones" where no fishing is allowed.

Dr Sweatman's findings are published in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology* .

The starfish is a major management problem on coral reefs from Central America to Kenya and the Red Sea. They eat coral voraciously and wipe out nearly all coral on the reefs they infest. In the past 40 years they have caused much more damage to GBR reefs than have storms or coral bleaching.

Waves of outbreaks last about 15 years, beginning in the northern reaches of the GBR and then moving southward through the central areas.

The recent Status Report on the GBR, released by AIMS' Long-Term Monitoring Program in June, reported that COTS outbreaks were at a 20 year low. This new analysis points to the starfish causing less damage in the future.

By comparing the frequency of starfish outbreaks on no-take reefs and on reefs where fishing was allowed, Dr Sweatman showed that there was a clear pattern. "The relative frequency of outbreaks on reefs that were open to fishing was 3.75 times higher than that on no-take reefs in the mid-shelf region of the GBR, where most of the outbreaks occur," Dr Sweatman said. However, the ecological link between exploited fishes and COTS remains uncertain.

The reef fishes that fishermen target are unlikely to prey upon COTS, but there may be several links in the ecological chain: more large predatory fishes in no-take areas may reduce the numbers of smaller fishes, in turn reducing predation on invertebrate species such as worms and crustaceans that prey on very small juvenile starfish. This process remains to be fully researched.

Dr Sweatman said this finding boosted the scientific case for protection of reef ecosystems.

"This study provides an additional argument for establishment of effective marine protected areas wherever the starfish occurs, as refuges from exploitation and other threats and as sources for re-colonisation of damaged reefs to increase ecological resilience," he said.

To access Dr Sweatman's Current Biology article, please go to:

Read Dr Sweatman's Current Biology article:

sweatman-2008-cots-mpas-biology-paper.pdf (142Kb PDF file)

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Implementing the Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility in North Queensland

For further information, please contact:

Dr Hugh Sweatman, AIMS Long-Term Monitoring

Phone : 07 4753 4470; 0419 986 746

E-mail :

Liz Tynan, AIMS Science Communication

Phone: 07 4753 4235; 0418 729 265