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Weed-eating fish seen as key to coral reef preservation

Protecting coral-grazing species like parrotfish may be critical for the survival of coral reefs. PHOTO COURTESY NOAA.

Over-harvesting of reef-grazers results in reefs being overgrown by seaweed

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Spear-fishing harvests of weed-eating fish is pushing some coral reef ecosystems over the brink, according to Australian researchers. Preserving populations of species like parrotfish and surgeonfish may be vital to saving the world’s coral reefs from being engulfed by weed as human and climate impacts grow, the scientists with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies concluded.

For some years researchers have pinned their hopes on the ability of weed-eating fish to keep the weeds at bay while the corals recover following a major setback like bleaching, a dump of sediment from the land, or a violent cyclone. The weed-grazing species are key to coral reef ecosystems, but they can only keep coral reefs clear of weed up to a point. After the weeds reach a certain density, they take over entirely and the coral is lost.

“As a result, the whole system tips from being coral-dominated to weed-dominated,” said Dr. Andrew Hoey.

“In countries … like Fiji … where people harvest the weed-eating fishes with spearguns, nets … we are seeing a fundamental change in the nature of reefs from coral to weeds,” said Dr. Andrew Hoey. “In Australia where there is much less harvesting of herbivorous fishes, the corals are in better shape and bounce back more readily from setbacks. And our work shows that it doesn’t take a very high density of the fleshy seaweeds like Sargassum to discourage the fish, a patch of weed the size of a back garden could be enough to trigger a change. The fishes show a clear preference for grazing more open areas.”

Coral reefs are in decline worldwide, with many of them – especially in the Asia-Pacific region – showing ‘phase shifts’ from being coral-dominated to degraded states dominated by large fleshy seaweeds.

The new insight into how well or poorly fish control weeds was gained by transplanting different densities of sargassum weed on a reef off Orpheus Island – and then using remote video cameras to record what the fish did.

“My wife and I must have watched hours and hours of video of fish feeding on weeds and counting the number of bites they took. It’s one of the less glamorous aspects of doing marine science,” Hoey admitted with a laugh.

In all they counted 28 species of fish taking 70,685 separate bites of weed and removing an average of 10 kilos of weed a day. In the more open areas this was enough to control the weed.

But Hoey also noticed the fish avoided the densely-weeded areas, perhaps for fear of predators lurking in the weed or because mature weeds are less palatable.

“This suggested to us there is a critical weed density, beyond which fish no longer control the weeds and they then take over the reef system. This in turn implies a need to keep the herbivore population as healthy as possible to avoid the reef reaching that tipping point.”

Fortunately, in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park the harvesting of herbivorous fish is limited to a few recreational fishers. However Andy says it is his view that herbivorous fish ought to be carefully protected in order to give the Reef’s corals their best chance of making a rapid recovery from impacts like mass bleaching, the mud dumped by recent floods, and cyclones like Yasi.

“We should also bear in mind that this study was conducted in an area of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park that has been protected from all commercial and recreational fishing for over 20 years and so is likely to have intact fish communities.

“How herbivores respond in areas of the world where they are still heavily fished may be absolutely critical to the survival of large areas of reef in Asia and the Pacific – and hence to the human communities who depend on them for food, tourism and other resources.”

The paper “Suppression of herbivory by macroalgal density: a critical feedback on coral reefs?” by Hoey A and Bellwood D, appears in the latest issue of Ecology Letters, (2011) 14: 267–273

More information:
Dr Andrew Hoey, CoECRS and JCU, +61 (0)7 4781 5761 or 0458 174 583
Jenny Lappin, CoECRS, +61 (0)7 4781 4222 or +61 417 741 638
Jim O’Brien, James Cook University Media Office, +61 (0)7 4781 4822 or 0418 892449
http://www.coralcoe.org.au/

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  1. [...] Weed-eating fish seen as key to coral reef preservation [...]

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