Suchley, Adam, McField, Melanie D., and Alvarez-Filip, Lorenzo. 2016. "Rapidly increasing macroalgal cover not related to herbivorous fishes on Mesoamerican reefs." PeerJ 4:e2084. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.2084
Long-term phase shifts from coral to macroalgal dominated reef systems are well documented in the Caribbean. Although the impact of coral diseases, climate change and other factors is acknowledged, major herbivore loss through disease and overfishing is often assigned a primary role. However, direct evidence for the link between herbivore abundance, macroalgal and coral cover is sparse, particularly over broad spatial scales. In this study we use a database of coral reef surveys performed at 85 sites along the Mesoamerican Reef of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, to examine potential ecological links by tracking site trajectories over the period 2005-2014. Despite the long-term reduction of herbivory capacity reported across the Caribbean, the Mesoamerican Reef region displayed relatively low macroalgal cover at the onset of the study. Subsequently, increasing fleshy macroalgal cover was pervasive. Herbivorous fish populations were not responsible for this trend as fleshy macroalgal cover change was not correlated with initial herbivorous fish biomass or change, and the majority of sites experienced increases in macroalgae browser biomass. This contrasts the coral reef top-down herbivore control paradigm and suggests the role of external factors in making environmental conditions more favourable for algae. Increasing macroalgal cover typically suppresses ecosystem services and leads to degraded reef systems. Consequently, policy makers and local coral reef managers should reassess the focus on herbivorous fish protection and consider complementary measures such as watershed management in order to arrest this trend.