Houk, P., Benavente, D., Iguel, J., Johnson, S., Okano, R.
Coral reef disturbance and recovery dynamics differ across gradients of localized stressors in the Mariana Islands
University of Guam; Pacific Marine Resources Institute; CNMI Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality
"The individual contribution of natural disturbances, localized stressors, and environmental regimes upon longer-term reef dynamics remains poorly resolved for many locales despite its significance for management. This study examined coral reefs in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands across a 12-year period that included elevated crown-of-thorns starfish densities (COTS) and tropical storms that were drivers of spatially-inconsistent disturbance and recovery patterns. At the island scale, disturbance impacts were highest on Saipan with reduced fish sizes, grazing urchins, and water quality, despite having a more favorable geological foundation for coral growth compared with Rota. However, individual drivers of reef dynamics were better quantified through site-level investigations that built upon island generalizations. While COTS densities were the strongest predictors of coral decline as expected, interactive terms that included wave exposure and size of the overall fish assemblages improved models (R2 and AIC values). Both wave exposure and fish size diminished disturbance impacts and had negative associations with COTS. However, contrasting findings emerged when examining net ecological change across the 12-year period. Wave exposure had a ubiquitous, positive influence upon the net change in favorable benthic substrates (i.e. corals and other heavily calcifying substrates, R2 = 0.17 for all reef types grouped), yet including interactive terms for herbivore size and grazing urchin densities, as well as stratifying by major reef types, substantially improved models (R2 = 0.21 to 0.89, lower AIC scores). Net changes in coral assemblages (i.e., coral ordination scores) were more sensitive to herbivore size or the water quality proxy acting independently (R2 = 0.28 to 0.44). We conclude that COTS densities were the strongest drivers of coral decline; however, net ecological change was most influenced by localized stressors, especially herbivore sizes and grazing urchin densities. Interestingly, fish size, rather than biomass, was consistently a better predictor, supporting allometric, size-and-function relationships of fish assemblages. Management implications are discussed."
Funded by NOAA CRCP award NA11NOS4820015