A process-orientated understanding of ecosystems usually starts with an exploratory analysis of empirical relationships among potential drivers and state variables. While relationships among herbivory, algal cover, and coral recruitment, have been explored in the Caribbean, the nature of such relationships in the Pacific appears to be variable or unclear. Here, we examine potential drivers structuring the benthos and herbivorous fish assemblages of outer-shelf reefs in Micronesia (Palau, Guam and Pohnpei). Surveys were stratified by wave exposure and protection from fishing. High biomass of most herbivores was favoured by high wave exposure. High abundance of large-bodied scarids was associated with low turf abundance, high coral cover, and marine reserves. The remaining herbivores were more abundant in reefs with low coral cover, possibly because space and hence food limitation occur in high-coral-cover reefs. Rugosity had no detectable effect on herbivorous fish abundance once differences in exposure and coral cover were accounted for. At identical depths, high wave exposure was associated with greater volumes (cover × canopy height) of macroalgae and algal turfs, which most likely resulted from high primary productivity driven by flow. In exposed areas, macroalgal cover declined as the acanthurid biomass increased. The volume of algal turfs was negatively associated with coral cover and herbivore biomass. In turn, high coral cover and herbivore biomass are likely to intensify grazing. The density of juvenile corals was variable where macroalgal cover was low but was confined to lower densities where macroalgal cover was high. High coral cover and density of juvenile corals were favoured in sheltered habitats. While a weak positive relationship was found between scarid biomass and juvenile coral density, we hypothesise that high scarid densities may hinder juvenile density through increased corallivory. New hypotheses emerged that will help clarify the role of acanthurids, wave exposure, and corallivory in driving the recovery of Pacific coral communities.
Additional publication details
Empirical relationships among resilience indicators on Micronesian reefs