Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is expected to exceed 500 parts per million and global temperatures to rise by at least 2°C by 2050 to 2100, values that significantly exceed those of at least the past 420,000 years during which most extant marine organisms evolved. Under conditions expected in the 21st century, global warming and ocean acidification will compromise carbonate accretion, with corals becoming increasingly rare on reef systems. The result will be less diverse reef communities and carbonate reef structures that fail to be maintained. Climate change also exacerbates local stresses from declining water quality and overexploitation of key species, driving reefs increasingly toward the tipping point for functional collapse. This review presents future scenarios for coral reefs that predict increasingly serious consequences for reef-associated fisheries, tourism, coastal protection, and people. As the International Year of the Reef 2008 begins, scaled-up management intervention and decisive action on global emissions are required if the loss of coral-dominated ecosystems is to be avoided.
1. There has been ongoing flattening of Caribbean coral reefs with the loss of habitat having severe implications for these systems. Complexity and its structural components are important to fish species richness and community composition, but little is known about its role for other taxa or species-specific responses. 2. This study reveals the importance of reef habitat complexity and structural components to different taxa of macrofauna, total species richness, and individual coral and fish species in the Caribbean. 3. Species presence and richness of different taxa were visually quantified in one hundred 25-m2 plots in three marine reserves in the Caribbean. Sampling was evenly distributed across five levels of visually estimated reef complexity, with five structural components also recorded: the number of corals, number of large corals, slope angle, maximum sponge and maximum octocoral height. Taking advantage of natural heterogeneity in structural complexity within a particular coral reef habitat (Orbicella reefs) and discrete environmental envelope, thus minimizing other sources of variability, the relative importance of reef complexity and structural components was quantified for different taxa and individual fish and coral species on Caribbean coral reefs using boosted regression trees (BRTs). 4. Boosted regression tree models performed very well when explaining variability in total (823%), coral (806%) and fish species richness (773%), for which the greatest declines in richness occurred below intermediate reef complexity levels. Complexity accounted for very little of the variability in octocorals, sponges, arthropods, annelids or anemones. BRTs revealed species-specific variability and importance for reef complexity and structural components. Coral and fish species occupancy generally declined at low complexity levels, with the exception of two coral species (Pseudodiploria strigosa and Porites divaricata) and four fish species (Halichoeres bivittatus, H. maculipinna, Malacoctenus triangulatus and Stegastes partitus) more common at lower reef complexity levels. A significant interaction between country and reef complexity revealed a non-additive decline in species richness in areas of low complexity and the reserve in Puerto Rico. 5. Flattening of Caribbean coral reefs will result in substantial species losses, with few winners. Individual structural components have considerable value to different species, and their loss may have profound impacts on population responses of coral and fish due to identity effects of key species, which underpin population richness and resilience and may affect essential ecosystem processes and services.
ABSTRACT: Region-wide assessments of coral cover typically rely on meta-analyses of small- scale ecological studies which have combined different coral reef habitats. This is particularly problematic on forereefs where at least 2 habitats can be found; coral-based bioherms and colo- nized hardgrounds (hereafter Orbicella reefs and gorgonian plains), each with very different structure and scleractinian coral cover. Here, we quantify the degree to which the failure to differ- entiate forereef zones dominated by framework building corals, mainly Orbicella spp. (hereafter Orbicella reefs) from gorgonian plains can lead to biased assessments of coral cover. We also pro- vide a baseline of an extensive sample of Caribbean coral reefs in 2010−2012 for the 2 habitats within the forereef. Mean scleractinian coral cover (±SE) at Orbicella reefs was 24 ± 1.3%, more than double the coral cover found on the gorgonian plains (10 ± 1.6%). The difference in coral cover between habitats within the same geomorphological zone is consistent with those calculated from an independent dataset for the basin (Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment). Further- more, the average coral cover calculated for Caribbean Orbicella reefs was more than double the values previously reported for entire reefs in the region a decade ago (10%), which integrated data from different habitats, depths, time periods and surveyors. Differentiating between forereef habitats has provided a meaningful baseline of coral state, which allows for realistic targets for management in the Caribbean basin.
Coral assemblages on Caribbean reefs have largely been considered to be biogeographically homogeneous at a regional scale. We reassess this in three taxa (corals, sponges and octocorals) using three community attributes with increasing levels of information (species richness, composition and relative abundance) across hierarchical spatial scales, and identify the key environmental drivers associated with this variation.
We assessed reefs along 546 transects positioned within the same forereef habitat (Orbicella reef) in 11 countries, using a consistent methodology and surveyors. Spatial variability in richness, composition and relative abundance was assessed at four hierarchical spatial scales – transects (metres), sites (kilometres), areas (tens of kilometres) and regions (hundreds of kilometres) – using permutational multivariate analysis of variance (PERMANOVA). The relevance of contemporary environmental factors in explaining the observed spatial patterns was also assessed using PERMANOVA.
Consistent with previous studies, species richness of coral assemblages, commonly the focus of biogeographical studies, showed little variance at large spatial scales. In contrast, species composition and relative abundance showed significant variability at regional scales. Coral, sponge and octocoral assemblages each varied independently across spatial scales. Rugosity and wave exposure were key drivers of the composition and relative abundance of coral and octocoral assemblages.
Caribbean reef assemblages exhibit considerable biogeographical variability at broad spatial scales (hundreds of kilometres) when more responsive community attributes were used. However, the high degree of variability within sites (kilometres) highlights the relevance of local ecological drivers such as rugosity and wave exposure in structuring assemblages. The high levels of within-site variability that is not explained by environmental variables may suggest a previously unrealized contribution of anthropogenic disturbance operating at local scales throughout the region.
The Indo-Pacific lionfish, Pterois volitans, has invaded most of the Tropical Western Atlantic in the last few years. The degree to which populations of this invasive species can be controlled by native predatory fish (mostly grouper), is controversial with conflicting reports. Here, we review the evidence of two recent papers and point out some of the difficulties in inferring predator-limitation purely from observational data. A negative relationship has been found between large-bodied grouper and lionfish during early colonisation though the degree to which this is caused by direct predation versus behavioural mechanisms is unclear. Evidence to the contrary from a recent study suffers confounding effects of habitat quality, fishing, and dispersal and therefore remains equivocal.
Coral reefs have been more severely impacted by recent climate instability than any other ecosystem on Earth. Corals tolerate a narrow range of physical environmental stress, and increases in sea temperature of just 1 1C over several weeks can result in mass coral mortality, often exceeding 95% of individuals over hundreds of square kilometres. Even conservative climate models predict that mass coral bleaching events could occur annually by 2050. Unfortunately, managers of coral-reef resources have few options available to meet this challenge. Here, we investigate the role that fisheries conservation tools, including the designation of marine reserves, can play in altering future trajectories of Caribbean coral reefs. We use an individual-based model of the ecological dynamics to test the influence of spatially realistic regimes of disturbance on coral populations. Two major sources of disturbance, hurricanes and coral bleaching, are simulated in contrasting regions of the Caribbean: Belize, Bonaire, and the Bahamas. Simulations are extended to 2099 using the HadGEM1 climate model. We find that coral populations can maintain themselves under all levels of hurricane disturbance providing that grazing levels are high. Regional differences in hurricane frequency are found to cause strikingly different spatial patterns of reef health with greater patchiness occurring in Belize, which has less frequent disturbance, than the Bahamas. The addition of coral bleaching led to a much more homogenous reef state over the seascape. Moreover, in the presence of bleaching, all reefs exhibited a decline in health over time, though with substantial variation among regions. Although the protection of herbivores does not prevent reef degradation it does delay rates of coral loss even under the most severe thermal and hurricane regimes. Thus, we can estimate the degree to which local conservation can help buy time for reefs with values ranging between 18 years in the Bahamas and over 50 years in Bonaire, compared with heavily fished systems. Ultimately, we demonstrate that local conservation measures can benefit reef ecosystem services but that their impact will vary spatially and temporally. Recognizing where such management interventions will either help or fail is an important step towards both achieving sustainable use of coral-reef resources and maximizing resource management investments.
K-selected species with low rates of sexual recruitment may utilise storage effects where low adult mortality allows a number of individuals to persist through time until a favourable recruitment period occurs. Alternative methods of recruitment may become increasingly important for such species if the availability of favourable conditions for sexual recruitment decline under rising anthropogenic disturbance and climate change. Here, we test the hypotheses that asexual dispersal is an integral life history strategy not only in branching corals, as previously reported, but also in a columnar, ‘K-selected’ coral species, and that its prevalence is driven by the frequency of severe hurricane disturbance. Montastraea annularis is a long-lived major frame-work builder of Caribbean coral reefs but its survival is threatened by the consequences of climate induced disturbance, such as bleaching, ocean acidification and increased prevalence of disease. 700 M. annularis samples from 18 reefs within the Caribbean were genotyped using six polymorphic microsatellite loci. We demonstrate that asexual reproduction occurs at varying frequency across the species-range and significantly contributes to the local abundance of M. annularis, with its contribution increasing in areas with greater hurricane frequency. We tested several competing hypotheses that might explain the observed pattern of genotypic diversity. 64% of the variation in genotypic diversity among the sites was explained by hurricane incidence and reef slope, demonstrating that large-scale disturbances combine with local habitat characteristics to shape the balance between sexual and asexual reproduction in populations of M. annularis.
Global-scale deteriorations in coral reef health have caused major shifts in species composition. One projected consequence is a lowering of reef carbonate production rates, potentially impairing reef growth, compromising ecosystem functionality and ultimately leading to net reef erosion. Here, using measures of gross and net carbonate production and erosion from 19 Caribbean reefs, we show that contemporary carbonate production rates are now substantially below historical (mid- to late-Holocene) values. On average, current production rates are reduced by at least 50%, and 37% of surveyed sites were net erosional. Calculated accretion rates (mm/year) for shallow fore-reef habitats are also close to an order of magnitude lower than Holocene averages. A live coral cover threshold of around 10% appears critical to maintaining positive production states. Below this ecological threshold carbonate budgets typically become net negative and threaten reef accretion. Collectively, these data suggest that recent ecological declines are now suppressing Caribbean reef growth potential.
The detrimental effect of climate change induced bleaching on Caribbean coral reefs has been widely documented in recent decades. Several studies have suggested that increases in the abundance of thermally tolerant endosymbionts may ameliorate the effect of climate change on reefs. Symbionts that confer tolerance to temperature also reduce the growth rate of their coral host. Here, we show, using a spatial ecosystem model, that an increment in the abundance of a thermally tolerant endosymbiont (D1a) is unlikely to ensure the persistence of Caribbean reefs, or to reduce their rate of decline, due to the concomitant reduction in growth rate under current thermal stress predictive scenarios. Furthermore, our results suggest that given the documented vital rates of D1a-dominated corals, increasing dominance of D1a in coral hosts may have a detrimental effect by reducing the resilience of Caribbean reefs, and preventing their long-term recovery. This is because Caribbean ecosystems appear to be highly sensitive to changes in the somatic growth rate of corals. Alternative outcomes might be expected in systems with different community-level dynamics such as reefs in the Indo-Pacific, where the ecological costs of reduced growth rate might be far smaller.