skip to main content

Title: Fishing and habitat condition differentially affect size spectra slopes of coral reef fishes

Marine food webs are structured through a combination of top‐down and bottom‐up processes. In coral reef ecosystems, fish size is related to life‐history characteristics and size‐based indicators can represent the distribution and flow of energy through the food web. Thus, size spectra can be a useful tool for investigating the impacts of both fishing and habitat condition on the health and productivity of coral reef fisheries. In addition, coral reef fisheries are often data‐limited and size spectra analysis can be a relatively cost‐effective and simple method for assessing fish populations. Abundance size spectra are widely used and quantify the relationship between organism size and relative abundance. Previous studies that have investigated the impacts of fishing and habitat condition together on the size distribution of coral reef fishes, however, have aggregated all fishes regardless of taxonomic identity. This leads to a poor understanding of how fishes with different feeding strategies, body size‐abundance relationships, or catchability might be influenced by top‐down and bottom‐up drivers. To address this gap, we quantified size spectra slopes of carnivorous and herbivorous coral reef fishes across three regions of Indonesia representing a gradient in fishing pressure and habitat conditions. We show that fishing pressure was the dominant driver of size spectra slopes such that they became steeper as fishing pressure increased, which was due to the removal of large‐bodied fishes. When considering fish functional groups separately, however, carnivore size spectra slopes were more heavily impacted by fishing than herbivores. Also, structural complexity, which can mediate predator‐prey interactions and provisioning of resources, was a relatively important driver of herbivore size spectra slopes such that slopes were shallower in more complex habitats. Our results show that size spectra slopes can be used as indicators of fishing pressure on coral reef fishes, but aggregating fish regardless of trophic identity or functional role overlooks differential impacts of fishing pressure and habitat condition on carnivore and herbivore size distributions.

more » « less
Author(s) / Creator(s):
 ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  
Publisher / Repository:
Wiley Blackwell (John Wiley & Sons)
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Ecological Applications
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    Fishing pressure on coral reef ecosystems has been frequently linked to reductions of large fishes and reef fish biomass. Associated impacts on overall community structure are, however, less clear. In size‐structured aquatic ecosystems, fishing impacts are commonly quantified using size spectra, which describe the distribution of individual body sizes within a community. We examined the size spectra and biomass of coral reef fish communities at 38US‐affiliated Pacific islands that ranged in human presence from near pristine to human population centers. Size spectra ‘steepened’ steadily with increasing human population and proximity to market due to a reduction in the relative biomass of large fishes and an increase in the dominance of small fishes. Reef fish biomass was substantially lower on inhabited islands than uninhabited ones, even at inhabited islands with the lowest levels of human presence. We found that on populated islands size spectra exponents decreased (analogous to size spectra steepening) linearly with declining biomass, whereas on uninhabited islands there was no relationship. Size spectra were steeper in regions of low sea surface temperature but were insensitive to variation in other environmental and geomorphic covariates. In contrast, reef fish biomass was highly sensitive to oceanographic conditions, being influenced by both oceanic productivity and sea surface temperature. Our results suggest that community size structure may be a more robust indicator than fish biomass to increasing human presence and that size spectra are reliable indicators of exploitation impacts across regions of different fish community compositions, environmental drivers, and fisheries types. Size‐based approaches that link directly to functional properties of fish communities, and are relatively insensitive to abiotic variation across biogeographic regions, offer great potential for developing our understanding of fishing impacts in coral reef ecosystems.

    more » « less
  2. Abstract

    Mounting evidence suggests that fishing can be a major driver of coral‐to‐macroalgae regime shifts on tropical reefs. In many small‐scale coral reef fisheries, fishers target herbivorous fishes, which can weaken coral resilience via reduced herbivory on macroalgae that then outcompete corals. Previous models that explored the effects of harvesting herbivores revealed hysteresis in the herbivory–benthic state relationship that results in bistability of coral‐ and macroalgae‐dominated states over some levels of fishing pressure, which has been supported by empirical evidence. However, past models have not accounted for the functional differences among herbivores or how fisher selectivity for different herbivore functional groups may alter the benthic dynamics and resilience. Here, we use a dynamic model that links differential fishing on two key herbivore functional groups to the outcome of competitive dynamics between coral and macroalgae. We show that reef state depends not only on the level of fishing but also on the types of herbivores targeted by fishers. Selectively fishing browsing herbivores that are capable of consuming mature macroalgae (e.g., unicornfish) increases precariousness of the coral state by moving the system close to the coral‐to‐macroalgae tipping point. By contrast, selectively harvesting grazing herbivores that are only capable of preventing macroalgae from becoming established (e.g., parrotfishes) can increase catch yields substantially more before the tipping point is reached. However, this lower precariousness with increasing fishing effort comes at the cost of increasing the range of fishing effort over which coral and macroalgae are bistable; increasing hysteresis makes a regime shift triggered by a disturbance more difficult or impractical to reverse. Our results suggest that management strategies for small‐scale coral reef fisheries should consider how functional differences among harvested herbivores coupled with fisher selectivity influence benthic dynamics in light of the trade‐off between tipping point precariousness and coral recovery dynamics following large disturbances.

    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    Protection of coastal ecosystems from deforestation may be the best way to protect coral reefs from sediment runoff. However, given the importance of generating economic activities for coastal livelihoods, the prohibition of development is often not feasible. In light of this, logging codes of practice have been developed to mitigate the impacts of logging on downstream ecosystems. However, no studies have assessed whether managed land‐clearing can occur in tandem with coral reef conservation goals.

    This study quantifies the impacts of current land use and the risk of potential logging activities on downstream coral reef condition and fisheries using a novel suite of linked land‐sea models, using Kolombangara Island in the Solomon Islands as a case study. Further, we examine the ability of erosion reduction strategies stipulated in logging codes of practice to reduce these impacts as clearing extent increases.

    We found that with present‐day land use, reductions in live and branching coral cover and increases in turf algae were associated with exposure to sediment runoff from catchments and log ponds. Critically, reductions in fish grazer abundance and biomass were associated with increasing sediment runoff, a functional group that accounts for ~25% of subsistence fishing. At low clearing extents, although best management practices minimize the exposure of coral reefs to increased runoff, it would still result in 32% of the reef experiencing an increase in sediment exposure. If clearing extent increased, best management practices would have no impact, with a staggering 89% of coral reef area at risk compared to logging with no management.

    Synthesis and applications. Assessing trade‐offs between coastal development and protection of marine resources is a challenge for decision makers globally. Although development activities requiring clearing can be important for livelihoods, our results demonstrate that new logging in intact forest risks downstream resources important for both food and livelihood security. Importantly, our approach allows for spatially explicit recommendations for where terrestrial management might best complement marine management. Finally, given the critical degradation feedback loops that increased sediment runoff can reinforce on coral reefs, minimizing sediment runoff could play an important role in helping coral reefs recover from climate‐related disturbances.

    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Tropical floodplains secure the protein supply of millions of people, but only sound management can ensure the long‐term continuity of such ecosystem services. Overfishing is a widespread threat to multitrophic systems, but how it affects ecosystem functioning is poorly understood, particularly in tropical freshwater food webs. Models based on temperate lakes frequently assume that primary producers are mostly bottom‐up controlled by nutrient and light limitations, with negligible effects of top‐down forces. Yet this assumption remains untested in complex tropical freshwater systems experiencing marked spatiotemporal variation.

    We use consolidated community‐based fisheries management practices and spatial zoning to test the relative importance of bottom‐up versus top‐down drivers of phytoplankton biomass, controlling for the influence of local to landscape heterogeneity. Our study focuses on 58 large Amazonian floodplain lakes under different management regimes that resulted in a gradient of apex‐predator abundance. These lakes, distributed along ~600 km of a major tributary of the Amazon River, varied widely in size, structure, landscape context, and hydrological seasonality.

    Using generalised linear models, we show that community‐based fisheries management, which controls the density of apex predators, is the strongest predictor of phytoplankton biomass during the dry season, when lakes become discrete landscape units. Water transparency also emerges as an important bottom‐up factor, but phosphorus, nitrogen and several lake and landscape metrics had minor or no effects on phytoplankton biomass. During the wet‐season food pulse, when lakes become connected to adjacent water bodies and homogenise the landscape, only lake depth explained phytoplankton biomass.

    Synthesis and applications. Tropical freshwaters fisheries typically assume that fish biomass is controlled by bottom‐up mechanisms, so that overexploitation of large predators would not affect overall ecosystem productivity. Our results, however, show that top‐down forces are important drivers of primary productivity in tropical lakes, above and beyond the effects of bottom‐up factors. This helps us to understand the enormous success of community‐based ‘fishing agreements’ in the Amazon. Multiple stakeholders should embrace socio‐ecological management practices that shape both bottom‐up and top‐down forces to ensure biodiversity protection, sustainable fisheries yields and food security for local communities and regional economies.

    more » « less
  5. Abstract Background Predation pressure and herbivory exert cascading effects on coral reef health and stability. However, the extent of these cascading effects can vary considerably across space and time. This variability is likely a result of the complex interactions between coral reefs’ biotic and abiotic dimensions. A major biological component that has been poorly integrated into the reefs' trophic studies is the microbial community, despite its role in coral death and bleaching susceptibility. Viruses that infect bacteria can control microbial densities and may positively affect coral health by controlling microbialization. We hypothesize that viral predation of bacteria has analogous effects to the top-down pressure of macroorganisms on the trophic structure and reef health. Results Here, we investigated the relationships between live coral cover and viruses, bacteria, benthic algae, fish biomass, and water chemistry in 110 reefs spanning inhabited and uninhabited islands and atolls across the Pacific Ocean. Statistical learning showed that the abundance of turf algae, viruses, and bacteria, in that order, were the variables best predicting the variance in coral cover. While fish biomass was not a strong predictor of coral cover, the relationship between fish and corals became apparent when analyzed in the context of viral predation: high coral cover (> 50%) occurred on reefs with a combination of high predator fish biomass (sum of sharks and piscivores > 200 g m −2 ) and high virus-to-bacteria ratios (> 10), an indicator of viral predation pressure. However, these relationships were non-linear, with reefs at the higher and lower ends of the coral cover continuum displaying a narrow combination of abiotic and biotic variables, while reefs at intermediate coral cover showed a wider range of parameter combinations. Conclusions The results presented here support the hypothesis that viral predation of bacteria is associated with high coral cover and, thus, coral health and stability. We propose that combined predation pressures from fishes and viruses control energy fluxes, inhibiting the detrimental accumulation of ecosystem energy in the microbial food web. 
    more » « less