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A geological perspective on the degradation and conservation of western Atlantic coral reefs

April 29, 2016

Continuing coral-reef degradation in the western Atlantic is resulting in loss of ecological and geologic functions of reefs. With the goal of assisting resource managers and stewards of reefs in setting and measuring progress toward realistic goals for coral-reef conservation and restoration, we examined reef degradation in this region from a geological perspective. The importance of ecosystem services provided by coral reefs—as breakwaters that dissipate wave energy and protect shorelines and as providers of habitat for innumerable species—cannot be overstated. However, the few coral species responsible for reef building in the western Atlantic during the last approximately 1.5 million years are not thriving in the 21st century. These species are highly sensitive to abrupt temperature extremes, prone to disease infection, and have low sexual reproductive potential. Their vulnerability and the low functional redundancy of branching corals have led to the low resilience of western Atlantic reef ecosystems. The decrease in live coral cover over the last 50 years highlights the need for study of relict (senescent) reefs, which, from the perspective of coastline protection and habitat structure, may be just as important to conserve as the living coral veneer. Research is needed to characterize the geological processes of bioerosion, reef cementation, and sediment transport as they relate to modern-day changes in reef elevation. For example, although parrotfish remove nuisance macroalgae, possibly promoting coral recruitment, they will not save Atlantic reefs from geological degradation. In fact, these fish are quickly nibbling away significant quantities of Holocene reef framework. The question of how different biota covering dead reefs affect framework resistance to biological and physical erosion needs to be addressed. Monitoring and managing reefs with respect to physical resilience, in addition to ecological resilience, could optimize the expenditure of resources in conserving Atlantic reefs and the services they provide.

Publication Year 2016
Title A geological perspective on the degradation and conservation of western Atlantic coral reefs
DOI 10.1111/cobi.12725
Authors Ilsa B. Kuffner, Lauren T. Toth
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Conservation Biology
Index ID 70175026
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center