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Episodic heterogeneous decline and recovery of coral cover in the Indian Ocean

Abstract

Long-term changes in coral cover for the Caribbean and the Pacific/Southeast Asia regions (PSEA) have proven extremely useful in assessing the main drivers, magnitude and timescales of change. The one major coral reef region where such assessments have not been made is the Indian Ocean (IO). Here, we compiled coral cover survey data from across the IO into a database of ~2,000 surveys from 366 coral reef sites collected between 1977 and 2005. The compilation shows that the 1998 mass coral bleaching event was the single most important and widespread factor influencing the change in coral cover across the region. The trend in coral cover followed a step-type function driven by the 1998 period, which differs from findings in the Caribbean and the PSEA regions where declines have been more continuous and mostly began in the 1980s. Significant regional variation was observed, with most heterogeneity occurring during and after 1998. There was a significant relationship between cover and longitude for all periods, but the relationship became stronger in the period immediately after 1998. Before 1998, highest coral cover was observed in the central IO region, while this changed to the eastern region after 1998. Coral cover and latitude displayed a significant U-shaped relationship immediately after 1998, due to a large decrease in cover in the northern-central regions. Post-1998 coral cover was directly correlated to the impact of the disturbance; areas with the lowest mortality having the highest cover with India–Sri Lanka being an outlier due to its exceptionally high recovery. In 1998, reefs within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) were more heavily impacted than unmanaged reefs, losing significantly greater total cover. MPA recovery was greater such that no differences were observed by 2001–2005. This study indicates that the regional patterns in coral cover distribution in the IO are driven mainly by episodic and acute environmental stress.

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Acknowledgments

The Wildlife Conservation Society supported this study through a number of sources: the World Bank Targeted Research Group on Coral Bleaching and Western Indian Ocean Science for Management Program (MASMA). The database is a product of the hard work of many scientists and volunteers who contributed data to "Reef Check" and published results in peer-reviewed and non-reviewed reports.

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Correspondence to M. Ateweberhan.

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Communicated by Biology Editor Dr. Hugh Sweatman

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Ateweberhan, M., McClanahan, T.R., Graham, N.A.J. et al. Episodic heterogeneous decline and recovery of coral cover in the Indian Ocean. Coral Reefs 30, 739 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-011-0775-x

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Keywords

  • ENSO
  • Climatic disturbance
  • Climate change impact
  • Coral bleaching
  • Coral reef management
  • Ecological vulnerability
  • Marine reserves
  • Recovery
  • Regional variation