DAO 87:19-31 (2009)  -  doi:10.3354/dao02120

Ten years of change to coral communities off Mona and Desecheo Islands, Puerto Rico, from disease and bleaching

Andrew W. Bruckner1,2,*, Ronald L. Hill3

1Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, 8181 Professional Place, Suite 215, Landover, Maryland 20785, USA
2NOAA Fisheries, Coral Reef Conservation Program, Office of Habitat Conservation, 1315 East West Highway, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910, USA
3NOAA Fisheries, Southeast Fisheries Science Center, 4700 Ave. U, Galveston, Texas 77551, USA

ABSTRACT: Remote reefs off southwest Puerto Rico have experienced recent losses in live coral cover of 30 to 80%, primarily due to the decline of Montastraea annularis and M. faveolata from disease and bleaching. These species were formerly the largest, oldest, and most abundant corals on these reefs, constituting over 65% of the living coral cover and 40 to 80% of the total number of colonies. From 1998 to 2001, outbreaks of yellow band disease (YBD) and white plague (WP) affected 30 to 60% of the M. annularis (complex) colonies. Disease prevalence declined beginning in 2002, and then increased immediately following the 2005 mass bleaching event. Colonies of M. annularis (complex) have been reduced in abundance by 24 to 32%, and remaining colonies are missing more than half their tissue. Both M. annularis and M. faveolata have failed to recruit, resheeting has been minimal, and exposed skeletal surfaces are being colonized by macroalgae, bioeroding sponges, and hydrozoans. Other scleractinian corals were smaller in size (mean = 28 cm diameter) and exhibited lower levels of partial mortality; these taxa were affected to a lesser extent by coral diseases and bleaching-associated tissue loss over the last decade. The numbers of small colonies (1 to 9 cm) of these species identified since 2005 also exceeded numbers of larger colonies that died. These reefs appear to be exhibiting shifts in species assemblages, with replacement of M. annularis (complex) by shorter-lived brooding species and other massive and plating corals (Agaricia, Porites, Meandrina, Eusmilia, Diploria, and Siderastrea spp.). To avoid a catastrophic and permanent loss of the dominant, slow-growing reef-building corals, the causes and effects of diseases need to be better understood, and possible control mechanisms must be developed. In particular, steps must be taken to mitigate environmental and anthropogenic stressors that increase the spread and severity of disease.

KEY WORDS: Coral disease · Bleaching · Coral cover · Montastraea annularis · Loss of coral

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Cite this article as: Bruckner AW, Hill RL (2009) Ten years of change to coral communities off Mona and Desecheo Islands, Puerto Rico, from disease and bleaching. Dis Aquat Org 87:19-31

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