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Implications for the Conservation of Deep-Water Corals in the Face of Multiple Stressors: A Case Study from the New Zealand Region

The waters around New Zealand are a global hotspot of biodiversity for deep-water corals; approximately one sixth of the known deep-water coral species of the world have been recorded in the region. Deep-water corals are vulnerable to climate-related stressors and from the damaging effects of commercial fisheries. Current protection measures do not account for the vulnerability of deep-water corals to future climatic conditions, which are predicted to alter the distribution of suitable habitat for them. Using recently developed habitat suitability models for 12 taxa of deep-water corals fitted to current and future seafloor environmental conditions (under different future climatic conditions: SSP2 – 4.5 and SSP3-7.0) we explore possible levels of spatial protection using the decision-support tool Zonation. Specifically, we assess the impact of bottom trawling on predictions of current distributions of deep-water corals, and then assess the effectiveness of possible protection for deep-water corals, while accounting for habitat refugia under future climatic conditions. The cumulative impact of bottom trawling was predicted to impact all taxa, but particularly the reef-forming corals. Core areas of suitable habitat were predicted to decrease under future climatic conditions for many taxa. We found that designing protection using current day predictions alone, having accounted for the impacts of historic fishing impacts, was unlikely to provide adequate conservation for deep water-corals under future climate change. Accounting for future distributions in spatial planning identified areas which may provide climate refugia whilst still providing efficient protection for current distributions. These gains in conservation value may be particularly important given the predicted reduction in suitable habitat for deep-water corals due to bottom fishing and climate change. Finally, the possible impact that protection measures may have on deep-water fisheries was assessed using a measure of current fishing value (kg km-2 fish) and future fishing value (predicted under future climate change scenarios).
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© 2023 The Authors. This is an open-access article under the CCBY-NC-ND license.