Patterns of distribution and drivers of change in shallow seagrass and algal assemblages of a non-estuarine Southern Caribbean mangrove lagoon

Shallow marine macrophyte communities serve key roles in the tropical coastal ecosystem but are undergoing large and rapid deterioration worldwide, as is also the case in the non-estuarine mangrove lagoon of Lac Bay, Bonaire, in the Southern Caribbean. To help better understand both the drivers of assemblage structure and potential consequences of the changes taking place in the bay, we here quantify and describe the distribution of algal and seagrass assemblages along the environmental gradient from the turbid, inner mangrove pools to the clear, open bay conditions, based on 98 randomly-chosen, 4 m2 survey plots. Seven assemblages were described along this land-to-sea gradient, five of which were dominated by marine macrophytes, one by sponges and one by a polychaete. With exception of the hypersaline backwaters which were devoid of benthic macrophyte vegetation, isolated mangrove pools showed the lowest total benthic cover, species richness and biodiversity of all habitats. Salinity and substrate particle-size composition accounted for most variation between the different assemblages and appear to be the key known determinants of assemblage composition. We developed a conceptual model to help disentangle the relationship between and the relative roles of the two principal drivers, as part of a cascade of effects which ultimately result from terrestrial run-off into the bay as mediated by mangrove encroachment into the bay. The model links spatial patterns to ongoing processes and implies that the assemblage patterns described are not only a reflection of, but also allow prediction of how the assemblages develop through time.

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