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Short-term changes of fish assemblages observed in the near-pristine reefs of the Phoenix Islands

Abstract

Climate change-related disturbances are increasingly recognized as critical threats to biodiversity and species abundance. On coral reefs, climate disturbances have known consequences for reef fishes, but it is often difficult to isolate the effect of coral bleaching from preceding or simultaneous disturbances such as fishing, pollution, and habitat loss. In this study, pre-bleaching surveys of fish family assemblages in the remote Phoenix Islands in 2002 are compared to post-bleaching in 2005, following severe thermal stress. Post-bleaching, total coral cover decreased substantially, as did the combined abundance of all fish families. Yet, changes in abundance for specific fish families were not uniform, and varied greatly from site to site. Of the 13 fish families examined, 3 exhibited significant changes in abundance from 2002 to 2005, regardless of site (Carangidae, Chaetodontidae, and serranid subfamily Epinephelinae). For these families, we explored whether changes in abundance were related to island type (island vs atoll) and/or declining coral cover (percent change). Carangidae on islands experienced larger changes in abundance than those on atolls, though declines in abundance over time were not associated with changes in live coral cover. In contrast, for Chaetodontidae, declines in abundance over time were most dramatic on atolls, and were also associated with changes in live coral cover. The remoteness of the Phoenix Islands excludes many typical local anthropogenic stressors as drivers of short-term changes; observed changes are instead more likely attributed to natural variation in fish populations, or associated with coral loss following the 2002–2003 major thermal stress event.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Stuart Sandin and Les Kaufman for their thoughtful comments on this manuscript. We are grateful to Kerry Lagueux for producing the maps depicted in Fig. 1, and to Tania Lemos Eskin for drawing the fish sketches used in Table 2 and Fig. 3. This study is part of a larger effort examining reef recovery and resilience processes on isolated atoll reefs in the central Pacific; this effort has been funded and supported by the New England Aquarium, the National Geographic Society, Conservation International (Global Conservation Fund), the Government of Kiribati, the Akiko Shiraki Dynner Fund for Ocean Exploration and Conservation, and the Nai’a (Rob Barrel and Cat Holloway). Findings from this manuscript were presented at the World Fisheries Congress in 2012.

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Correspondence to Randi D. Rotjan.

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Mangubhai, S., Strauch, A.M., Obura, D.O. et al. Short-term changes of fish assemblages observed in the near-pristine reefs of the Phoenix Islands. Rev Fish Biol Fisheries 24, 505–518 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11160-013-9327-5

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Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Disturbance
  • Coral reef
  • Kiribati
  • Chaetodontidae