Discovery Magazine

Photo Credit: Thad Murdoch

Benthic Monitoring in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

This project focuses on the efficacy of marine protected areas (MPAs) in coral reef protection. Much has been said and written about the importance of local management as a strategy to enhance the resistance and resilience of reefs, and of coral populations in particular, buying time while we confront the global issues of rising temperatures, rising sea levels, declining pH levels, and increasingly virulent marine diseases associated with climate change. But will the local biological and physical processes revealed by small-scale experimental studies be reflected in the regional dynamics of coral reefs? For example, will enhancing populations of herbivorous fishes as a means of coral reef protection actually decrease macroalgal populations and increase the resistance or resilience of coral populations in the face of the regional- to global-scale drivers of reef degradation?

We are conducting a long-term, biogeographic-scale program to examine the value of coral reef protection. We are tracking corals, sponges, algae and other bottom-dwelling organisms in fully-protected zones (FPZs) and reference reefs within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Long-term videographic and photographic records, and experimental asessments of coral settlement are enabling us to detect changes in coral cover, diversity, and recruitment success, and to determine the contributions of large- and small-scale stresses and disturbances to those changes. We are focusing on the landscape- to regional-scale predictors of coral diversity and the changeover from coral-dominated to algae-dominated reef communities. Such studies are of special concern to managers and policymakers interested in coral reef protection. The results of this study highlight the imperative to mitigate and reverse local, regional and global perturbations simultaneously for meaningful coral reef protection.