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A network of grassroots reserves protects tropical river fish diversity


Intensive fisheries have reduced fish biodiversity and abundance in aquatic ecosystems worldwide1,2,3. ‘No-take’ marine reserves have become a cornerstone of marine ecosystem-based fisheries management4,5,6, and their benefits for adjacent fisheries are maximized when reserve design fosters synergies among nearby reserves7,8. The applicability of this marine reserve network paradigm to riverine biodiversity and inland fisheries remains largely untested. Here we show that reserves created by 23 separate communities in Thailand’s Salween basin have markedly increased fish richness, density, and biomass relative to adjacent areas. Moreover, key correlates of the success of protected areas in marine ecosystems—particularly reserve size and enforcement—predict differences in ecological benefits among riverine reserves. Occupying a central position in the network confers additional gains, underscoring the importance of connectivity within dendritic river systems. The emergence of network-based benefits is remarkable given that these reserves are young (less than 25 years old) and arose without formal coordination. Freshwater ecosystems are under-represented among the world’s protected areas9, and our findings suggest that networks of small, community-based reserves offer a generalizable model for protecting biodiversity and augmenting fisheries as the world’s rivers face unprecedented pressures10,11.

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Fig. 1: Riverine reserve network within the Mae Ngao basin.
Fig. 2: Fish responses to protection in reserves.
Fig. 3: Reserve features vary in benefits for fish.
Fig. 4: Scaling of benefits with key reserve features.

Data availability

The datasets used and/or analysed during the current study are available in the Environmental Data Initiative repository (

Code availability

The R code used for the analyses presented here is available from GitHub (


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We thank the communities of the Mae Ngao River basin for their participation in and support of this research, and the International Sustainable Development Studies Institute (Chiang Mai) for logistical support. Earlier drafts of the manuscript were improved by the McIntyre laboratory groups at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Cornell University, and by comments from I. Baird, B. Peckarsky, K. Winemiller, E. Stanley, T. Ives, R. Abell and M. Thieme. Funding was provided by National Science Foundation grants DGE-0718123, DGE-1144752, and DEB-15011836 to A.A.K. and DGE-1144752 to K.M.P., a Harvey Fellowship and a Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability Postdoctoral Fellowship to A.A.K., and a David and Lucille Packard Fellowship to P.B.M. Additional funding provided by USAID’s ‘Wonders of the Mekong’ Cooperative Agreement No: AID-OAA-A-16-00057.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



A.A.K. conceptualized the research, acquired funding, performed fieldwork, conducted analyses, and wrote the manuscript. K.M.P. performed fieldwork, assisted in methodological development, and edited the manuscript. E.F.-C. conducted analyses, contributed to creating figures, and edited the manuscript. P.B.M. contributed to research conceptualization and methodological development, and edited the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Aaron A. Koning.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature thanks Edward Allison and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Frequency distribution of species-level maximum observed body length for the fish fauna of the study area of the Salween River basin.

The natural break at 20 cm (blue dashed line) was used to classify each species as relatively large (≥20 cm) versus smaller (<20 cm).

Extended Data Fig. 2 Average total fish biomass measures in paired reserve (red points) and non-reserve (blue points) of varying ages.

Dotted lines correspond to nonlinear least squares estimates for reserves and non-reserves showing gains in both reserves and adjacent fished areas over time.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Partial residual plots for all best averaged models of richness (Rr), density (Dr), and biomass (Br) responses to no-take reserves.

Symbology indicates alternative groupings of fish species by body size and trophic group at each site (n = 23). The box and whisker plot shows the minimum and maximum values (excluding outliers) as ends of hashed lines, upper and lower quartiles as the upper and lower bounds of the box, the median as the bold line, and outliers (values exceeding 1.5 times the interquartile range) as points for reserves having no explicit penalty (No; n = 4) and those with an explicit penalty (Yes; n = 19). Full model results are found in Extended Data Tables 13.

Extended Data Table 1 Results of model averaging for richness reserve response (Rr)
Extended Data Table 2 Results of model averaging for density reserve response (Dr)
Extended Data Table 3 Results of model averaging for biomass reserve response (Br)

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

The file contains additional text providing details of the cultural context in which the network of reserves studied here arose. Supplementary Figure 1. Shoaling fish in a reserve in Mae Ngao River, northern Thailand.

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Koning, A.A., Perales, K.M., Fluet-Chouinard, E. et al. A network of grassroots reserves protects tropical river fish diversity. Nature 588, 631–635 (2020).

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