Herbivory And The Resilience Of Caribbean Coral Reefs: Knowledge Gaps And Implications For Management

This paper explores herbivory and how it affects the resilience of coral reefs in the Caribbean. The authors identify important knowledge gaps that limit our ability to predict when herbivores are most likely to support resilience. The authors explore:

  • What processes operate to prevent or facilitate coral persistence and recovery, and how are these influenced by herbivory?
  • What are the independent and combined effects of different species of herbivores in limiting algae and facilitating reef-building corals?
  • What factors limit herbivore populations and the process of herbivory on coral reefs?

The impacts of herbivores on coral reef resilience are likely to be highly context- dependent, thus it is necessary to understand the roles that particular types of herbivores play in limiting harmful algae and facilitating corals under a range of environmental conditions to improve sustainable management of coral reef ecosystems.

The paper provides specific information to guide how to manage herbivore populations to facilitate healthy, resilient coral reefs. The authors present the following management recommendations/guidance:

  • Local management efforts should focus on minimizing direct sources of coral mortality, such as sedimentation and pollution, as well as restoring ecological processes, such as herbivory, that are important for coral persistence and recovery
  • Maintaining healthy herbivore populations is likely to mitigate the negative impacts of ocean warming since abundant herbivores can control algae that inhibit coral recovery following coral decline
  • Better spatial management of fishing could minimize trade-offs between the need to maintain high levels of grazing while supporting sustainable fisheries
  • Implementation of marine protected areas or other spatial restrictions on herbivore fishing will only be effective if we can sustainably manage herbivore populations outside of protected areas. Different species of parrotfishes have different life-history traits and different impacts on benthic communities, thus should not be managed as a single species complex
  • Managers will need to ensure that reefs have the right mix of herbivores to carry out the full set of functions normally performed by the herbivore guild
  • It is critical to protect seagrasses and mangroves, which are important nursery habitats for several species of Caribbean herbivores
  • In cases where degradation has been severe and feedbacks are operating that could slow or prevent coral recovery, management actions targeted specifically at breaking feedbacks that maintain reefs in a degraded state are necessary

Author: Adam, T.C., D.E. Burkepile B.I. Ruttenberg, and M.J. Paddack
Year: 2015
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Marine Ecology Progress Series 520:1-20

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