Exploring the relationships between marine protected areas and invasive fish in the world's most invaded sea.
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are an essential tool for marine biodiversity conservation. Yet, their effectiveness in protecting marine ecosystems from global stressors is debated. Biological invasions are a major driver of global change, causing biodiversity loss and altering ecosystem functioning. Here, we explored the relationships between MPAs and alien/native range-expanding fishes in the Mediterranean Sea, the world's most invaded sea. We surveyed fish and benthic communities in nine MPAs and adjacent unprotected areas across six countries. In the South and Eastern Mediterranean MPAs, the biomass of alien and native range-expanding fishes often exceeded 50% of the total fish biomass. Conversely, in the North and Western Mediterranean, alien fishes were absent. A negative relationship was found between native and alien species richness. Average and minimum sea surface temperature (SST) over six consecutive years were positively correlated with the total biomass of alien species; no alien fishes were recorded below 20.5°C average SST and 13.8°C minimum SST. We also found a negative relationship between alien fishes' biomass and the distance from the Suez Canal, which is the main pathway for the introduction of alien fish in the Mediterranean Sea. The biomass of alien and native range-expanding fishes was found to be higher in the South and Eastern Mediterranean MPAs than in adjacent unprotected areas. The association of barrens (rocky reefs deprived of vegetation) and invasive herbivores was observed at all eastern sites, regardless of protection status. Currently, the level of fishing pressure exerted on alien and native range-expanding fishes seems to be the most influential factor determining the lower biomass of invasive fishes at unprotected sites compared to MPAs. Our findings suggest that complementary management actions, such as species-targeted removals, should be taken in MPAs to effectively control invasive fish populations.