, Volume 29, Issue 4, pp 815-833
Date: 26 May 2010

Coral growth on three reefs: development of recovery benchmarks using a space for time approach

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Abstract

This 14-year study (1989–2003) develops recovery benchmarks based on a period of very strong coral recovery in Acropora-dominated assemblages on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) following major setbacks from the predatory sea-star Acanthaster planci in the early 1980s. A space for time approach was used in developing the benchmarks, made possible by the choice of three study reefs (Green Island, Feather Reef and Rib Reef), spread along 3 degrees of latitude (300 km) of the GBR. The sea-star outbreaks progressed north to south, causing death of corals that reached maximum levels in the years 1980 (Green), 1982 (Feather) and 1984 (Rib). The reefs were initially surveyed in 1989, 1990, 1993 and 1994, which represent recovery years 5–14 in the space for time protocol. Benchmark trajectories for coral abundance, colony sizes, coral cover and diversity were plotted against nominal recovery time (years 5–14) and defined as non-linear functions. A single survey of the same three reefs was conducted in 2003, when the reefs were nominally 1, 3 and 5 years into a second recovery period, following further Acanthaster impacts and coincident coral bleaching events around the turn of the century. The 2003 coral cover was marginally above the benchmark trajectory, but colony density (colonies.m−2) was an order of magnitude lower than the benchmark, and size structure was biased toward larger colonies that survived the turn of the century disturbances. The under-representation of small size classes in 2003 suggests that mass recruitment of corals had been suppressed, reflecting low regional coral abundance and depression of coral fecundity by recent bleaching events. The marginally higher cover and large colonies of 2003 were thus indicative of a depleted and aging assemblage not yet rejuvenated by a strong cohort of recruits.