MEPS 222:187-196 (2001)  -  doi:10.3354/meps222187

Limits to grazing by herbivorous fishes and the impact of low coral cover on macroalgal abundance on a coral reef in Belize

Ivor D. Williams, Nicholas V. C. Polunin*, Vicki J. Hendrick
*Corresponding author. E-mail:

ABSTRACT: Widespread rises in the abundance of fleshy macroalgae on Caribbean reefs within the last 20 yr have variously been attributed to eutrophication, overfishing, or the 1983-4 mass mortality of the grazing sea urchin Diadema antillarum. However, none of those factors can satisfactorily explain why macroalgae are abundant today even on lightly fished mid-depth reefs in sparsely populated areas. Here we explore another explanation for rises in macroalgal cover on such reefs, namely that they are a side effect of declines in coral cover. We suggest that grazing by herbivorous fishes can exclude macroalgae from mid-depth reefs with high cover of hard corals, but that on low-cover reefs, the amount of space occupied by algae overwhelms the ability of grazing fishes to crop it down. We simulated the effect of 10% and 25% rises in coral cover by attaching Œpseudo-corals¹ (PVC tiles covered in a non-toxic anti-fouling coating) to reef substratum in 5 x 5 m plots (3 groups: control, 10%T and 25%T) on a 12 m deep forereef site in front of Ambergris Caye, Belize. Within 3 mo of attaching tiles, macroalgae had declined by approximately 10% in 10%T plots and 25% in 25%T plots compared with control plots, and these new states persisted for the duration of the experiment (macro-algae averaging 38.0% in control plots, 28.7% in 10%T plots, and 13.6% in 25%T plots). Dramatic reductions in macroalgae may have made the 25%T plots more attractive to herbivorous fishes, as, in the later stages of the experiment, herbivorous fish biomass and acanthurid feeding rate were higher in those plots than in 10%T and control plots.


KEY WORDS: Coral reef · Grazing thresholds · Macroalgal dominance · Herbivorous fish · Caribbean


Full text in pdf format