Coral Reef Biodiversity More Important To Divers Than Fish Abundance
August 20, 2013

Coral Reef Biodiversity More Important To Divers Than Fish Abundance

[WATCH VIDEO: Tamar Artificial Reef Now Teeming With Life]

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

With ecotourism on the rise, determining what elements of a nature-based attraction are most appealing can have significant consequences financially and for raising awareness of conservation issues.

In a new study of the Negev from Ben-Gurion University (BGU) in Israel, researchers found that divers were able to differentiate between an artificial reef’s biodiversity and its population. The study also found that divers prefer more diversity to more numerous fish.

In 2007, BGU scientists constructed the Tamar Reef in the Red Sea’s Gulf of Eilat, part of a collaboration between Israelis and Jordanians, to create an ecotourism site and to reduce pressure on the region’s naturally occurring reef system. More than six years later the man-made reef is teeming with fish, corals and other sea creatures.

According to the new report in ICES Journal of Marine Science, divers said they would pay money to improve the reef and ranked biodiversity as most important among seven different reef attributes. Divers ranked fish abundance as least important.

"This result was exiting to us [sic], since it shows that the general public as well as scientists place a high value on biodiversity and that visitors understand the fundamentals that constitute a coral reef community," said study author Nadav Shashar of BGU's Marine Biology and Biotechnology Program.

"This may help direct conservation efforts undertaken in designing future marine reserves and pre-planned artificial reefs,” he added.

In the study, the BGU researchers surveyed almost 300 divers to gauge their eagerness to pay for improving a variety of elements of a coral reef. Participants were given a series of photographs of the Tamar Reef with a range of densities and diversities of fish and coral species. The researchers said they were interested in seeing how divers’ aesthetic preferences correlated to scientific biodiversity attributes.

Shashar said the artificial reef and his team’s latest study are part of a larger conservation effort in the region.

“We are not just studying biodiversity but helping to reestablish fish and marine life that has been depleted in the Gulf,” he said.

As part of the collaboration between the two countries, both Israeli and Jordanian students and faculty work together on the Tamar Reef project and study how it affects nearby marine ecology. Team members fostered coral nurseries to augment coral diversity. Small fragments of corals were slowly developed into large corals that were then planted on the artificial reef.

“One of the nurseries developed into an entirely new ecosystem of a floating coral reef with all types of fish; we even filmed a turtle stopping by to feed,” Shashar said.

With approximately 150,000 dives performed annually in the area, the BGU joint project aims to develop alternative dive sites that will remove some of the human pressure from the nearby natural reef.

"In many places, reefs are being degraded to the point where even the bare rocks are gone," Shashar said. "Therefore, we are trying to build a new reef environment that will be different from the natural reefs in the vicinity, which will allow and even encourage the survival of species that are rare to the local area.”

“So not only will we expand the reef area -- on a very small scale -- we will also strengthen the most vulnerable species and communities,” he added.