Three decades of recurrent declines and recoveries in corals belie ongoing change in fish assemblages
Coral reefs are increasingly being altered by a myriad of anthropogenic activities and natural disturbances. Long-term studies offer unique opportunities to understand how multiple and recurrent disturbances can influence coral reef resilience and long-term dynamics. While the long-term dynamics of coral assemblages have been extensively documented, the long-term dynamics of coral reef fish assemblages have received less attention. Here, we describe the changes in fish assemblages on Tiahura reef, Moorea, from 1979 to 2011. During this 33-yr period, Tiahura was exposed to multiple disturbances (crown-of-thorns seastar outbreaks and cyclones) that caused recurrent declines and recoveries of coral cover and changes in the dominant coral genera. These shifts in coral composition were associated with long-term cascading effects on fish assemblages. The composition and trophic structure of fish assemblages continuously shifted without returning to their initial composition, whereas fish species richness remained stable, albeit with a small increase over time. We detected nonlinear responses of fish density when corals were most degraded. When coral cover dropped below 10 % following a severe crown-of-thorns sea star outbreak, the density of most fish trophic groups sharply decreased. Our study shows that historical contingency may potentially be an important but largely underestimated factor explaining the contemporary structure of reef fish assemblages and suggests that temporal stability in their structure and function should not necessarily be the target of management strategies that aim at increasing or maintaining coral reef resilience.