MEPS 402:115-122 (2010)  -  doi:10.3354/meps08438

Regional spatio-temporal trends in Caribbean coral reef benthic communities

Virginia G. W. Schutte1,3,*, Elizabeth R. Selig1,2,4, John F. Bruno1

1Department of Marine Sciences, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 340 Chapman Hall CB# 3300, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-3300, USA
2Curriculum for the Environment and Ecology, 207 Coastes Building CB# 3275, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-3275, USA
3Present address: Odum School of Ecology, The University of Georgia, 140 E. Green St., Athens, Georgia 30602-2202, USA
4Present address: Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, Conservation International, 2011 Crystal Drive, Suite 500, Arlington, Virginia 22202, USA

ABSTRACT: Coral cover has declined on reefs worldwide with particularly acute losses in the Caribbean. Despite our awareness of the broad-scale patterns and timing of Caribbean coral loss, there is little published information on: (1) finer-scale, subregional patterns over the last 35 yr, (2) regional-scale trends since 2001, and (3) macroalgal cover changes. We analyzed the spatio-temporal trends of benthic coral reef communities in the Caribbean using quantitative data from 3777 coral cover surveys of 1962 reefs from 1971 to 2006 and 2247 macroalgal cover surveys of 875 reefs from 1977 to 2006. A subset of 376 reefs was surveyed more than once (monitored). The largest 1 yr decline in coral cover occurred from 1980 to 1981, corresponding with the beginning of the Caribbean-wide Acropora spp. white band disease outbreak. Our results suggest that, regionally, coral cover has been relatively stable since this event (i.e. from 1982 to 2006). The largest increase in macroalgal cover was in 1986, 3 yr after the regional die-off of the urchin grazer Diadema antillarum began. Subsequently, macroalgal cover declined in 1987 and has been stable since then. Regional mean (±1 SE) macroalgal cover from 2001 to 2005 was 15.3 ± 0.4% (n = 1821 surveys). Caribbean-wide mean (±1 SE) coral cover was 16.0 ± 0.4% (n = 1547) for this same time period. Both macroalgal and coral cover varied significantly among subregions from 2001 to 2005, with the lowest coral cover in the Florida Keys and the highest coral cover in the Gulf of Mexico. Spatio-temporal patterns from the subset of monitored reefs are concordant with the conclusions drawn from the entire database. Our results suggest that coral and macroalgal cover on Caribbean reef benthic communities has changed relatively little since the mid-1980s.

KEY WORDS: Coral cover · Macroalgae · Coral disease · Coral bleaching

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Cite this article as: Schutte VGW, Selig ER, Bruno JF (2010) Regional spatio-temporal trends in Caribbean coral reef benthic communities. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 402:115-122

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