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Geographic extent and variation of a coral reef trophic cascade

McClanahan, T. R., Muthiga, N. A.
Ecology 2016 v.97 no.7 pp. 1862-1872
Balistapus undulatus, Echinometra, Labridae, algae, benthic organisms, biomass, bycatch, calcification, coral reefs, fish, herbivores, latitude, longitude, predator-prey relationships, predators, Caribbean, Indian Ocean
Trophic cascades caused by a reduction in predators of sea urchins have been reported in Indian Ocean and Caribbean coral reefs. Previous studies have been constrained by their site‐specific nature and limited spatial replication, which has produced site and species‐specific understanding that can potentially preclude larger community‐organization nuances and generalizations. In this study, we aimed to evaluate the extent and variability of the cascade community in response to fishing across ~23° of latitude and longitude in coral reefs in the southwestern Indian Ocean. The taxonomic composition of predators of sea urchins, the sea urchin community itself, and potential effects of changing grazer abundance on the calcifying benthic organisms were studied in 171 unique coral reef sites. We found that geography and habitat were less important than the predator–prey relationships. There were seven sea urchin community clusters that aligned with a gradient of declining fishable biomass and the abundance of a key predator, the orange‐lined triggerfish (Balistapus undulatus). The orange‐lined triggerfish dominated where sea urchin numbers and diversity were low but the relative abundance of wrasses and emperors increased where sea urchin numbers were high. Two‐thirds of the study sites had high sea urchin biomass (>2,300 kg/ha) and could be dominated by four different sea urchin species, Echinothrix diadema, Diadema savignyi, D. setosum, and Echinometra mathaei, depending on the community of sea urchin predators, geographic location, and water depth. One‐third of the sites had low sea urchin biomass and diversity and were typified by high fish biomass, predators of sea urchins, and herbivore abundance, representing lightly fished communities with generally higher cover of calcifying algae. Calcifying algal cover was associated with low urchin abundance where as noncalcifying fleshy algal cover was not clearly associated with herbivore abundance. Fishing of the orange‐lined triggerfish, an uncommon, slow‐growing by‐catch species with little monetary value drives the cascade and other predators appear unable to replace its ecological role in the presence of fishing. This suggests that restrictions on the catch of this species could increase the calcification service of coral reefs on a broad scale.