Optimising Seagrass Conservation for Ecological Functions

Abstract

Animals are central to numerous ecological processes that shape the structure and function of ecosystems. It follows that species that are strongly linked to specific functions can represent these functions spatially and hence be useful in conservation planning. Here we test this notion of ‘functional species surrogacy’ for the conservation of seagrass meadows that have been impacted by stressors. We measured algal herbivory and herbivorous fish assemblages across a range of seagrass meadows in the Moreton Bay Marine Park, Queensland, Australia. We determined the suitability of herbivorous fish to act as a surrogate for the function of algal herbivory and modelled the abundance of this surrogate, and thus herbivory, in seagrass meadows to compare the spatial distribution of this function within existing reserves. We used underwater video systems to determine the abundance of all herbivorous fish species in seagrass meadows. The abundance of the dusky rabbitfish (Siganus fuscescens) was the best predictor of algal herbivory in seagrass meadows, supporting the suitability of this species as a functional surrogate. The distribution of dusky rabbitfish, and therefore the ecological function of herbivory, was not well represented in the Moreton Bay Marine Park protected areas. Only 7% of the equivalent area of seagrass meadows protected in marine reserves were found to have high abundances of dusky rabbitfish. We demonstrate that the abundance of functionally important herbivores can be suitable as a surrogate for herbivory in seagrass conservation. Our findings show that data on the spatial distribution of ecological functions can alter priorities for reserve design, and we suggest that our functional approach to species surrogacy is likely to improve conservation performance in seagrass ecosystems.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the three anonymous reviewers and the editor for their comments on this manuscript. We thank the staff of the Moreton Bay Research Station and K. Finlayson, E. Bell, N. Harcla-Goody, and B. Meteyard for field assistance. The Australian Rivers Institute and the Griffith University School of Environment funded the project.

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Correspondence to Christopher J. Henderson.

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Data for this paper are archived in the University of the Sunshine Coast Research Bank.

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CH, TS, SYL, BG, PM, and AO conceived the idea; CH and BG performed the research; CH, TS, SYL, BG, and JW analysed the data; and CH, TS, SYL, BG, TS, RC, and AO wrote the paper.

Data for this article can be found at https://zenodo.org/record/2535950#.XDZ22vxx3OR.

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Henderson, C.J., Stevens, T., Lee, S.Y. et al. Optimising Seagrass Conservation for Ecological Functions. Ecosystems 22, 1368–1380 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-019-00343-3

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Keywords

  • coastal ecosystems
  • conservation prioritisation
  • herbivory
  • seagrass
  • surrogate species
  • fish