Coral recovery may not herald the return of fishes on damaged coral reefs
The dynamic nature of coral reefs offers a rare opportunity to examine the response of ecosystems to disruption due to climate change. In 1998, the Great Barrier Reef experienced widespread coral bleaching and mortality. As a result, cryptobenthic fish assemblages underwent a dramatic phase-shift. Thirteen years, and up to 96 fish generations later, the cryptobenthic fish assemblage has not returned to its pre-bleach configuration. This is despite coral abundances returning to, or exceeding, pre-bleach values. The post-bleach fish assemblage exhibits no evidence of recovery. If these short-lived fish species are a model for their longer-lived counterparts, they suggest that (1) the full effects of the 1998 bleaching event on long-lived fish populations have yet to be seen, (2) it may take decades, or more, before recovery or regeneration of these long-lived species will begin, and (3) fish assemblages may not recover to their previous composition despite the return of corals.
KeywordsCoral reefs Resilience Bleaching Phase shifts Habitat loss
We thank: J. Ackerman, H. Larson, P. Munday, P. Osmond, and R. Winterbottom for their help with collections and/or fish identifications; P. Marshall for access to coral data; 800+ JCU MB3160 students for enthusiastic goby picking and sorting; the staff of Orpheus Island Research Station for field support; the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, National Parks, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Primary Industries for permission to collect; and two anonymous reviewers and colleagues in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies for helpful comments or discussions. This work was supported by the Australian Research Council (DRB).
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