Large-scale associations between macroalgal cover and grazer biomass on mid-depth reefs in the Caribbean
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Since the 1970s, macroalgae have become considerably more abundant on many Caribbean reefs and overfishing of grazing fishes has been implicated as a contributory factor. We explored relationships between algal cover and grazers (biomass of herbivorous fishes and abundance of the sea-urchin Diadema antillarum) on mid-depth reefs (12–15 m) in 19 areas at seven locations in Jamaica, Barbados, Belize, Grand Cayman and Cuba, between April 1997 and April 1998. Diadema antillarum density was never >0.01 m–2, while herbivorous fish biomass (acanthurids and scarids ≥12 cm total length) varied from 2–5 g m–2 in Jamaica to 17.1 g m–2 in Barbados, and was strongly correlated, negatively with macroalgal cover and positively with 'cropped' substratum (sum of 'bare', turf and crustose-coralline substrata) cover. However, overfishing of herbivorous fishes alone cannot explain the widespread abundance of macroalgae, as even on lightly fished reefs, macroalgal cover was mostly >20%. Herbivorous fish populations on those reefs were apparently only able to maintain approximately 40–60% of reef substratum in cropped states, but due to low space-occupation by coral and other invertebrates, 70–90% of substratum was available to algae. The abundance of macroalgae on lightly fished reefs may therefore be a symptom of low coral cover in combination with the continuing absence of Diadema antillarum.
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