Untangling natural seascape variation from marine reserve effects using a landscape approach

Brittany E. Huntington, Mandy Karnauskas, Elizabeth A. Babcock, Diego Lirman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Distinguishing management effects from the inherent variability in a system is a key consideration in assessing reserve efficacy. Here, we demonstrate how seascape heterogeneity, defined as the spatial configuration and composition of coral reef habitats, can mask our ability to discern reserve effects. We then test the application of a landscape approach, utilizing advances in benthic habitat mapping and GIS techniques, to quantify this heterogeneity and alleviate the confounding influence during reserve assessment. Seascape metrics were quantified at multiple spatial scales using a combination of spatial image analysis and in situ surveys at 87 patch reef sites in Glover's Reef Lagoon, Belize, within and outside a marine reserve enforced since 1998. Patch reef sites were then clustered into classes sharing similar seascape attributes using metrics that correlated significantly to observed variations in both fish and coral communities. When the efficacy of the marine reserve was assessed without including landscape attributes, no reserve effects were detected in the diversity and abundance of fish and coral communities, despite 10 years of management protection. However, grouping sites based on landscape attributes revealed significant reserve effects between site classes. Fish had higher total biomass (1.5×) and commercially important biomass (1.75 ×) inside the reserve and coral cover was 1.8 times greater inside the reserve, though direction and degree of response varied by seascape class. Our findings show that the application of a landscape classification approach vastly improves our ability to evaluate the efficacy of marine reserves by controlling for confounding effects of seascape heterogeneity and suggests that landscape heterogeneity should be considered in future reserve design.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12327
JournalPloS one
Issue number8
StatePublished - 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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