MEPS 315:237-247 (2006)  -  doi:10.3354/meps315237

Long-term effects of the 1998 coral bleaching event on reef fish assemblages

Kajsa C. Garpe1,*, Saleh A. S. Yahya1,2, Ulf Lindahl1, Marcus C. Öhman1

1Department of Zoology, Stockholm University, 10691 Stockholm, Sweden
2Institute of Marine Sciences, University of Dar es Salaam, PO Box 668, Zanzibar

ABSTRACT: Coral bleaching events constitute compound disturbances often resulting in coral death as well as successive degradation of the reef framework. The 1997/1998 El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) was the most severe on record and affected coral reefs worldwide. The present study examined the response of fish assemblages in plots of transplanted coral before and after the 1998 bleaching. Multidimensional scaling ordinations (MDS) demonstrate significant changes in assemblage composition related to habitat alteration. Within-site variability increased with disturbance, the increase being most apparent following substrate erosion. The differences in long-term responses as opposed to short-term responses were striking. Six mo after coral death, total abundance as well as taxonomic richness had increased at one of the sites, but not the other, whereas 6 yr later, both measures had decreased significantly at both sites. Functional groups, with documented affiliations with coral, were significantly influenced by the habitat alteration. Herbivore abundance increased as an immediate response to bleaching, but was subsequently decimated in eroded habitat. The loss of structural complexity had major detrimental effects on the entire fish community. In conclusion, we present evidence of severe and long-lasting secondary impacts of a catastrophic bleaching event, with no apparent recovery. The discrepancies between short-term and long-term responses underline the importance of long-term monitoring of fish assemblages following habitat alteration.

KEY WORDS: Habitat structure · Disturbance · Coral degradation · Community ecology · Herbivores · Corallivores · Multivariate analyses · Global warming

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