What would a tropical reef look like if it could escape the man-made perils of global heating and overfishing? A new study suggests it would look like Rowley Shoals, an isolated archipelago of reefs 260km off Australia’s north-west coast. “As soon as you jump in you realise there’s something special,” said fish biologist Matthew Birt. “The coral cover is amazing.” Birt has just led a study on the three reefs that make up the uninhabited Rowley Shoals, using cameras with baits that allowed Birt and colleagues to analyse the marine life over 14 years. The study found the relative isolation of Rowley Shoals, protections from commercial fishing, and its shape and location has sustained threatened species and rich biodiversity during a time of “unprecedented degradation of coral reefs” elsewhere around the world. Giant fish like the humphead Maori wrasse and humphead parrotfish – both growing to more than 1.5m – were seen regularly at Rowley Shoals, despite their globally threatened status. “What was remarkable was there was no real change in the abundance [of fish] through time. We don’t see any evidence of decline,” said Birt, of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (Aims). The humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) […]

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