A Report on the Status of the Coral Reefs of Bonaire in 2005 with Advice on a Monitoring Program

This report characterizes the state of Bonaire’s reefs as of March 2005. We pay particular attention to structural and functional attributes of reefs that have changed in so many other Caribbean reefs. We characterize coral reefs by their resident organisms and the forces regulating their distribution and abundance. Thus, corals, algae and fish define the “structure” of coral reefs but climate changes, diseases, hurricanes, overfishing, sedimentation and excess nutrients may affect how they “function”. Recent unfavorable changes in the structural and functional attributes of reefs have caused “the coral reef crisis” (Bellwood et al. 2004). In Caribbean coral reefs the most alarming changes have been the declines in the abundance of corals, sea urchins and reef fishes and the accompanying increases in large harmful seaweeds (called “macroalgae”). The decline in coral and increase in macroalgae, called a “phase shift”, represents a significant change in the structure of coral reef ecosystems that could lower its resilience.



In March of 2005, a team of graduate students from the University of Maine revisited six study reefs on Bonaire to determine the status of those reefs and to detect if any change has occurred since March of 2003 when the last such survey was conducted. The study sites established in 2003 from north to south are: Karpata, Barcadera, Reef Scientifico, Forest on Klein Bonaire, Plaza and Windsock. Bonaire’s shallow (10 m) reefs remain in good condition. Coral cover averaged 47% in 2005 compared to 46% in 2003 (no change). Turf algae have increased and coralline algae have declined slightly over the past two years. Harmful seaweed “macroalgae” abundance remains low (2% in 2005 and 5% in 2003; see Steneck in this report) at the 10 m depth we studied. At depths below 20 m, macroalgae are now and have been (for at least the past 30 years) much more abundant (e.g. Van den Hoek et al. 1975) The absence of macroalgae in Bonaire most likely relates to the abundance of seaweedeating species or “herbivores”. Caribbean-wide, harmful macroalgal seaweed abundance corresponds inversely with the abundance of grazing fish such as parrotfish and tangs (Fig. 1). No comparable plot exists for seaweed abundance and any other measured factor on reefs.

Changes over the past two decades
Comparisons between the status of reefs over a few years tell us little about long-term changes. For example, today there is a distinct demarcation between where Bonaire’s fringing reefs begin at 5 to 10 m depth and the shore. This region today is largely coralfree and dominated by rubble and sediment laden turf algae. However, this may not have always been the case. Prior to whiteband disease that killed nearly 90% of the elkhorn and staghorn corals in the Caribbean (i.e. Acropora palmata and A. cervicornis) (Aronson et al. 1998, Aronson and Precht 2001), most of the near shore zone was coral-dominated.
Coral cover in the near shore zone surrounding Bonaire has declined dramatically and is now dominated by dead coral rubble where once elkhorn and staghorn corals had formed near monocultures prior to white band disease. Five of our six study sites have changed dramatically over the past 20 years except for Karpata. The decline of the Acropora species may have allowed competitively inferior species such as lettuce, pencil, finger and fire corals (Agaricia spp, Madracis spp, Porites porities and Millepora complanata) to expand since all have increased in abundance since the Van Duyl study (1985). Corals are not the only group to have changed dramatically since the 1980s. Diadema antillarum, the dominant grazing sea urchins was abundant in the near shore zone until it succumbed to the mass mortality of the mid 1980s. Today, more than 20 years later it remains below detectable levels at most of the sites we studied (Smith and Malek this report, Steneck this report). These changes, along with the significant declines in large predator finfish (see Bonaire Report 2003) indicate that several key players for the resilience of coral reefs (e.g. Fig. 3) have declined in abundance.

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