Scientists agree that coral reefs are in an alarming global state of decline. However, determining the main cause or causes of this decline has proven a much more contentious issue. In the current edition of the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology (JEMBE), Harbor Branch marine scientist Dr.Brian Lapointe and colleagues present new evidence they hope will help settle one major debate: whether pollution or overfishing is the main cause of the coral-smothering spread of seaweed on many reefs. The research suggests that pollution from such sources as sewage and agricultural runoff is the main culprit, a conclusion that has major repercussions for managers working to end the decline of reefs in South Florida and around the world.
Dr. Peter Barile working at the mangrove channel outflow with three experimental cage sites visible
Credit: HARBOR BRANCH/Lapointe
Dr. Brian Lapointe analyzes water quality while aboard a HARBOR BRANCH research vessel near Normans Pond Cay
Credit: HARBOR BRANCH/Barile
When seaweed, or macroalgae, spreads over coral reefs, a problem becoming increasingly common, it can smother coral and prevent important reef inhabitants such as fish and lobster from finding the food and shelter they require. The reef that remains is transformed into a dull mound with little of its original vibrant life and color. The two main explanations for such overgrowth are that nutrients in pollution fuel rapid, explosive seaweed growth, or that overfishing and other problems remove key grazers such as fish or sea urchins that would normally feed on the seaweed, keeping its growth and spread in check.
"The reason this issue is so important is that were losing our coral reefs at a very accelerated rate," says Lapointe. "These systems are basically in catastrophic decline in many parts of the globe, and South Florida is probably losing coral even faster than other parts of the world. This research, I believe, makes it clear that one of the key problems is pollution from land-based sources."
Mark Schrope | EurekAlert!
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