Human Abuses of Coral Reefs- Adaptive Responses and Regime Transitions

University dissertation from Stockholm : Institutionen för systemekologi

Abstract: During the last few decades, coral reefs have become a disappearing feature of tropical marine environments, and those reefs that do remain are severely threatened. It is understood that humans have greately altered the environment under which these ecosystems previously have thrived and evoloved. Overharvesting of fish stocks, global warming and pollution are some of the most prominent threats, acting on coral reefs at several spatial and temporal scales. Presently, it is common that coral reefs have been degraded into alternative ecosystem regimes, such as macroalgae-dominated or sea urchin-barren. Although these ecosystems could potentially return to coral dominance in a long-term perspective, when considdering current conditions, it seems likely that they will persist in their degraded states. Thus, recovery of coral reefs cannot be taken for granted on a human timescale. Multiple stressors and disturbances, which are increasingly characteristic of coral reef environments today, are believed to act synergistically and produce ecological surprises. However, current knowledge of effects of compounded disturbances and stress is limited. Based on five papers, this thesis investigates the sublethal response of multiple stressors on coral physiology, as well as the effects of compounded stress and disturbance on coral reef structure and function. Adaptive responses to stress and disturbance in relation to prior experience are highlighted. The thesis further explores how inherent characteristics (traits) of corals and macroalgae may influence regime expression when faced with altered disturbance regimes, in particular overfishing, eutrophication, elevated temperature, and enhanced substrate availability. Finally, possibilities of affecting the resilience of macroalgae-dominaed reefs and shifting the community composition towards a coral-dominated regime are explored.

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