Ecological assessments of the coral reef communities in the Eastern Caribbean and the effects of herbivory in influencing coral juvenile density and algal cover
Williams, Stacey M.
Sánchez Godínez, Cristina
Newman, Steven P.
Cortés Núñez, Jorge
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Caribbean reefs have been unevenly surveyed, with many areas lacking baseline data. In this study, the current status of Orbicella reefs, a structurally complex forereef habitat, was quantified in an understudied region, the Eastern Caribbean. During 2011 the same observers surveyed benthic assemblages, coral juvenile density, herbivorous fishes, and invertebrates at 30 Orbicella reefs in four Eastern Caribbean areas: Antigua, Barbados, St Lucia, and St Vincent and the Grenadines (hereafter St Vincent). Not all Orbicella for-ereefs were functionally the same in the Eastern Caribbean. Benthic communities and herbivorous fishes varied greatly among islands. Hard coral had the highest overall per-cent cover on most reefs in this study, with an average cover of 22%, and was greater than fleshy macroalgal cover at 83% of the sites. Overall, coral juvenile density was low but was positively associated with higher densities of Diadema antillarum, highlighting the importance of herbivory on the reefs. Nearshore coral reefs in Barbados were in a better state than other areas, exhibiting higher coral cover dominated by spawning cor-als, higher densities of coral juveniles exhibiting higher coral cover dominated by spawn-ing corals, higher densities of coral juveniles and D. antillarum. Low biomass of herbivorous fishes at a majority of the coral reef sites is of major concern for the func-tioning of these reefs. Conservation of parrotfishes and other herbivores is necessary given the abundance of algae on most of these reefs and the beneficial effect of their presence on coral juveniles. This is the first comprehensive study that compares the state of Orbicella reefs in the Eastern Caribbean, providing valuable information that will be useful in creating realistic targets for future management and conservation.