MEPS 506:115-127 (2014)  -  doi:10.3354/meps10764

Experiment mimics fishing on parrotfish: insights on coral reef recovery and alternative attractors

Robert S. Steneck1,*, Suzanne N. Arnold1, Peter J. Mumby2

1Darling Marine Center, University of Maine, 193 Clarks Cove Road, Walpole, Maine 04573, USA
2Marine Spatial Ecology Lab, School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, St. Lucia Campus, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Dominance shifts in ecosystems can occur rapidly, resulting in alternative stable states. While some coral reef ecosystems shift and recover relatively quickly, others recover slowly or not at all over periods of centuries. We explore the role of large (fishing-susceptible) parrotfish in triggering algal phase shifts as alternative attractors that may lock reefs into coral-depleted alternative stable states. We designed an experiment to modestly reduce herbivory only from large parrotfish in the immediate vicinity of experimental coral settlement nursery habitats. We used vertical pegs (‘parrotfish deterrents’ or PDs) around coral settlement plates on 2 Belizean forereefs. Time-lapse videos and a year’s accumulation of bite-marks on plates confirmed that only herbivory from large parrotfish declined significantly due to PDs. Patches of macroalgae developed around PDs reducing coral recruitment in this treatment only. Two dominant reef-dwelling coral genera (Porites and Agaricia) recruited to our settlement plates. The fast-growing, high-light requiring, reef-building coral Porites was more negatively affected by phase shifts; this coral failed to recruit at and above mid-levels of algal abundance. We illustrate the direct roles ecological processes such as herbivory from large parrotfish play in regulating algal abundance, which in turn reduces the recruitment potential of reefs and thus the ecosystem’s capacity to recover. Combining our empirical results with an individually-based ecological simulation model, we determined that these processes cascade to drive alternative states and create a ‘hysteresis’ effect delaying or preventing recovery of the coral reef ecosystem. 

KEY WORDS: Alternative attractors · Alternative stable states · Coral recruitment · Herbivory · Hysteresis · Parrotfish · Phase shift · Reinforcing feedback

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Cite this article as: Steneck RS, Arnold SN, Mumby PJ (2014) Experiment mimics fishing on parrotfish: insights on coral reef recovery and alternative attractors. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 506:115-127

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