Land-based nutrient pollution is a major stressor on coral reef communities around the Caribbean region and globally. To assess the status of nutrient enrichment and eutrophication on Bonaire and Curacao’s coral reefs, we conducted a comparative nutrient monitoring program that included seasonal sampling for nutrients (ammonium, nitrate, DIN, SRP, TDN, TDP), phytoplankton biomass (Chl a), stable nitrogen isotopes (ð15N) in reef macroalgae, and biotic cover (point count analysis of video transect data) of shallow and deep reef sites between March 2006 and June 2008. Ammonium dominated the DIN pool on both islands and the highest concentrations (~10 µM) occurred on Bonaire’s reef sites adjacent to the Cargill salt ponds. DIN concentrations averaged > 1 µM on both shallow and deep reefs of both islands, indicating that these reefs are now above the DIN threshold noted to support expansion of algal turf, macroalgae and coral diseases. SRP concentrations averaged ~ 0.1 µM on both islands, a level that also represents the SRP threshold for eutrophication on coral reefs. DON and DOP dominated the TDN and TDP pools; TDN/TDP ratios averaged 52 on Bonaire and 45 on Curacao, indicating strong P-limitation of algal growth. Mean Chl a concentrations were higher on Curacao (0.25 µg/l) than Bonaire (0.19 µg/l) and the highest Chl a concentrations on both islands occurred on reefs adjacent to urbanized, nutrient enriched areas. In contrast, low Chl a values of ~ 0.05-0.1 µg/l occurred at the upstream reef sites and the offshore reference site, underscoring the importance of land-based nutrient enrichment to microbial growth and eutrophication on fringing reefs of both islands. The highest macroalgal ð15N values (> + 3 ‰) occurred at the MegaPier and Piscadera Bay on Curacao, which reflects the highest watershed sewage nitrogen inputs of all reef sites in the study. The lower ð15N (< + 2 ‰) values at the other reef sites reflect lower levels of sewage treatment as well as contributions from other nitrogen sources (nitrogen fixation, atmospheric inputs) that have lower source ð15N values. Reefs on both islands were dominated (~ 75 % cover) by benthic algae but showed distinct differences in algal composition; Bonaire’s reefs had high cover of turf and low cover of macroalgae compared to the opposite pattern on Curacao. Our results suggest that the recent expansion of benthic algae and loss of coral cover on reefs in Bonaire and Curacao are not simply the result of top-down human pressures (e.g., overfishing) alone, but also reflect strong bottom-up effects from land-based nutrient pollution.
The data of the study can be found here