Should we protect the strong or weak? An analysis of risk and resilience in marine protected areas.
It is thought that recovery of marine habitats from uncontrollable disturbance may be faster inmarine reserves than in unprotected habitats. But which marine habitats should be protected, those areas at greatest risk or those at least risk? We first defined this problem mathematically for 2 alternate conservation objectives.We then analytically solved this problem for both objectives and determined under which conditions each of the different protection strategies was optimal. If the conservation objective was to maximize the chance of having at least 1 healthy site, then the best strategy was protection of the site at lowest risk. On the other hand, if the goal was to maximize the expected number of healthy sites, the optimal strategy was more complex. If protected sites were likely to spend a significant amount of time in a degraded state, then it was best to protect low-risk sites. Alternatively, if most areas were generally healthy then, counterintuitively, it was best to protect sites at higher risk. We applied these strategies to a situation of cyclone disturbance of coral reefs on Australia¿s Great Barrier Reef. With regard to the risk of cyclone disturbance, the optimal reef to protect differed dramatically, depending on the expected speed of reef recovery of both protected and unprotected reefs. An adequate consideration of risk is fundamental to all conservation actions and can indicate surprising routes to conservation success.