Synthesis of coral reef health indicators for the Western Atlantic: Results of the AGRRA program (1997-2000)


The Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment (AGRRA) sampling strategy is designed to collect both descriptive and quantitative information for a large number of reef vitality indicators over large spatial scales. AGRRA assessments conducted between 1998 and 2000 across a spectrum of western Atlantic reefs with different histories of disturbance, environmental conditions, and fishing pressure were examined to reveal means and variances for 15 indicators. Twenty surveys were compiled into a database containing a total of 302 benthic sites (249 deep, 53 shallow), 2,337 benthic transects, 14,000 quadrats, 22,553 stony corals. Seventeen surveys contained comparable fish data for a total of 247 fish sites (206 deep, 41 shallow), 2,488 fish transects, and 71,102 fishes. Shallow (≤ 5 m) reefs were dominated by A. palmata, a good proportion of which was standing dead, while deep (>5m) reefs were nearly always dominated by the Montastraea annularis species complex. Fish communities were dominated by acanthurids and scarids with seranids making up less than 1% of the fish seen on shallow reefs and 4% on deep reefs.

AGRRA benthic and fish indicators on deep reefs showed the highest variation at the smallest spatial scale (~<0.1 km), with recent mortality and macroalgal canopy height displaying the largest area and subregional scale (~1-100 km) variation. A mean live coral cover of 26% for the 20 survey areas was determined for the deep sites. Significant bleaching and disease-induced mortality of stony corals associated with the 1998 (El Niño-Southern Oscillation) ENSO event were most apparent in the western Caribbean and Bahamas subregions and the Montastraea annularis complex was the most heavily impacted.

The overall low number of sightings for larger-bodied groupers and snappers (~< 1/100 m2) as a whole suggest that the entire region is overfished for many of these more heavily targeted species. More remote reefs showed as much evidence of reef degradation as reefs more proximal to human coastal development. Characterizing present-day reef condition across the region is a complex problem since there are likely multiple sources of stress operating over several spatial and temporal scales. Not withstanding the many limitations of this analysis, the value of making multiple observations across multiple spatial scales that can approximate the “normal” state for the region today is still very high. 

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