Population structure of an exploited benthic cnidarian: the case study of red coral (Corallium rubrumL.)

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Octocorals are an important part of many ecosystems as they add three-dimensional complexity to the benthos and thereby increase biodiversity. The Mediterranean red coral (Corallium rubrum, L. 1758) is a longevous octocoral that is harvested commercially, yet natural and anthropogenic influences on its population size structure are little understood. This study found that some harvested red coral populations had a significantly different size structure when compared to populations at the nearby Marine Protected Area (MPA) of Medas Islands at the Spanish Costa Brava (NW Mediterranean). Eighty-nine percent of the red corals in the harvested Costa Brava area are less than 10 years old and 96% of all colonies have not yet grown more than second-order branches. The size/age distribution of the harvested population is notably skewed towards younger and smaller colonies. Thus, although red coral is still abundant, its population structure is strongly distorted by harvesting. The results confirm that MPAs are useful to distinguish between anthropogenic and natural influences on population structure. However, 14 years of protection appears to be an insufficient recovery time for a longevous octocoral population such as red coral.

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