Ecological impact of a fresh-water “reef kill” in Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, Hawaii
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Storm floods on the night of December 31, 1987 reduced salinity to 15‰ in the surface waters of Kaneohe Bay, resulting in massive mortality of coral reef organisms in shallow water. A spectacular phytoplankton bloom occurred in the following weeks. Phytoplankton growth was stimulated by high concentrations of plant nutrients derived partially from dissolved material transported into the bay by flood runoff and partially by decomposition of marine organisms killed by the flood. Within two weeks of the storm, chlorophyll a concentrations reached 40 mg m-3, one of the highest values ever reported. The extremely rapid growth rate of phytoplankton depleted dissolved plant nutrients, leading to a dramatic decline or “crash” of the phytoplankton population. Water quality parameters returned to values approaching the long-term average within 2 to 3 months. Corals, echinoderms, crustaceans and other creatures suffered extremely high rates of mortality in shallow water. Virtually all coral was killed to depths of 1–2m in the western and southern portions of the bay. Elimination of coral species intolerant to lowered salinity during these rare flood events leads to dominance by the coral Porites compressa. After a reef kill, this species can eventually regenerate new colonies from undifferentiated tissues within the “dead” perforate skeleton. Catastrophic flood disturbances in Kaneohe Bay are infrequent, probably occurring once every 20 to 50 years, but play an important role in determination of coral community structure. The last major fresh water reef kill occurred in 1965 when sewage was being discharged into Kaneohe Bay. Coral communities did not recover until after sewage abatement in 1979. Comparison between recovery rate after the two flood events suggests that coral reefs can recover quickly from natural disturbances, but not under polluted conditions.
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