By: Megan Williams
At Coral Restoration Foundation, we strive to rebuild and restore our reefs throughout the Florida Keys. Historically, the Florida Reef Tract has been dominated by the reef-building species, staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) and elkhorn (Acropora palmata) coral. However, it is believed that over the past 40 years, across the Caribbean and South Florida, we have experienced about 80% loss of the most complex reefs. But why is it so important to have these reef-building species present on a reef?
1. Increased habitat for fish and invertebrate species.
By increasing the amount of staghorn and elkhorn corals on a reef, there is also an increase in the number of nooks and crannies where fish can live. While there are many other reef-building species of coral throughout the Caribbean, these two once dominant corals offer the most branching and intricate shape to allow a diverse number of habitats for other species to use. Corals such as brain, boulder, and pillar coral, which have lately been able to be more successful on our reefs, offer less versatility and spaces for fish and invertebrates to be protected and thrive.
2. Increased surface area to aid in protection of coastlines from damaging wave action and tropical storms.
Reefs across the world are vital to our coastlines, as they serve as a natural barrier to damaging waves, storms, and resulting erosion. However, when a reef is less structurally complex, it is not able to accomplish this protection as easily. The addition of strong, branching corals to a reef gives it more surface area, which in turn more effectively breaks up and reduces wave action moving over a reef.
3. Increase species biodiversity.
Studies have shown that there is a linear relationship in the number of branching corals and the species biodiversity on our reefs. This means that with increasing reef structure, there is increasing species diversity. With more habitat, herbivorous fish will be able to keep the algal cover on a reef low, leading to a more stable ecosystem with higher biodiversity. This is important in a number of ways, but primarily because there are more species able to live and be successful. This also benefits us by allowing us to see and appreciate the beauty of a healthy coral reef. We also benefit from reefs financially. A healthy, biodiverse ecosystem can support greater tourism and fisheries industries.
The reefs in our world are struggling. While some may seem to have a high coral cover in terms of large boulder corals, sea fans and whips, etc. it is important to keep in mind that, while stable, these reefs are not the healthiest they can be. By outplanting and trying to bring back our branching staghorn and elkhorn coral population on Florida reefs, Coral Restoration Foundation is working to bring back the reef structural complexity that will benefit fish, invertebrates, and us for a long time to come.
Alvarez-Filip L, Dulvy NK, Cote IM, Watkinson AR, Gill JA. “Coral identity underpins architectural complexity on Caribbean reefs.” Ecological Adaptations. 2011; 21; 2223-2231