Status and Trends of Bonaire’s Reefs, 2011. Cause for grave concerns

Unusually warm ocean temperatures surrounding Bonaire during the late summer and fall of 2010 caused 10 to 20 % of corals to bleach (Fig. 1). Bleaching persisted long enough to kill about 10 % of the corals within six months of the event (Steneck, Phillips and Jekielek Chapters 2A – C). That mortality event resulted in the first significant decline in live coral at sites monitored since 1999 (Fig. 2). Live coral declined from a consistent average of 48 % (from 1999 to 2009) to 38 % in 2011 (Steneck Chapter 1). This increase in non-coral substrate increased the area algae can colonize and the area parrotfish must keep cropped short (Mumby and Steneck 2008). For there to be no change in seaweed abundance would require herbivorous fish biomass and population densities to increase, but they have been steadily declining in recent years. This decline in parrotfish continues despite the establishment of no-take areas (called Fish Protection Areas – FPAs) and the recent law that completely bans the harvesting of parrotfish. The other major herbivore throughout the Caribbean is the black spined sea urchin, Diadema antillarum. However, since 2005 Diadema abundance has steadily declined. Damselfishes continue to increase in abundance (except in FPAs) and their aggressive territoriality reduces herbivory where they are present. These declines in herbivory resulted in a marked increase in macroalgae (Steneck Chapter 1). Although patchily distributed, algae on some of Bonaire’s reefs are approaching the Caribbean average (Kramer 2003). All research to date indicates that coral health and recruitment declines directly with increases in algal abundance (e.g., Arnold et al 2010).
On the bright side, predatory fishes are increasing in abundance in general but increasing most strongly in FPAs. Typically, responses to closed areas take 3 - 5 years to begin to manifest themselves. Predators of damselfishes have increased significantly in FPA sites and there, damselfish abundances are trending downward. These trends are the first signs of changes in the FPAs, and they are encouraging.
Overall, Bonaire’s coral reefs today are more seriously threatened with collapse than at any time since monitoring began in 1999.
Monitoring Results
The abundance of live coral at the monitoring sites has been remarkably constant since 1999. However, the bleaching related mortality event (Fig. 1) resulted in the first marked decline in live coral.
Seaweed abundance (“macroalgae”) increased sharply in 2011. While the greatest increase in algae occurred at the 18th Palm site where effluent could have increased nutrient levels, most of the other sites showed marked increases in algal abundance (see Steneck Chapter 1). Coralline algae, which has been shown to facilitate coral recruitment, remains at or near unprecedentedly low levels (Fig 2). Herbivory from parrotfishes and the grazing sea urchin Diadema antillarum remains at or near the lowest levels recorded since monitoring began in 1999 (Fig. 3 and see Cleaver Chapter 5). Herbivory from parrotfish is widely thought to be most important (e.g., Steneck and Mumby 2008) but territorial damselfishes can negate parrotfishes’ positive effects by attacking grazing herbivores and preventing them from effectively grazing (Arnold et al 2010). Damselfish abundances have trended upward in recent years (Fig. 3). However, there is a hint of a reversal to this trend in the FPAs (see Arnold Chapter 3). This reversal is consistent with the possibility that areas without fishing have elevated abundances of damselfish predators such as species of groupers and snappers (Randall 1965)  
Predatory fishes including snappers, groupers, barracuda, grunts and others increased in abundance at our monitored sites (Fig. 4 and see DeBey Chapter 6a). Specific predators known to eat damselfishes (see Preziosi Chapter 6b) show variable population densities with only a hint of an increase in 2011.   
Predatory fishes increased in abundance in both biomass (most striking) and population densities (Fig. 5). While biomass of predators in FPA and control sites is identical, the population density of predators is slightly greater at FPA sites
Coral recruitment remained lower than recorded in 2003 and 2005 (Fig. 6). However, the abundance of juvenile corals was higher in 2011 than was quantified in 2009

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