New study examines how human activities disrupt and destroy coral reefs, leading to fresh ideas about reef conservation and management
Human activity has wreaked havoc on coral reef habitats around the world. In case after case, from the Caribbean to the Indo-Pacific, coral reef health has declined wherever the human footprint is stamped. Overfishing, pollution, and other anthropogenic forces have led to declining reef health and the loss of reef-building organisms, such as corals, and an increase in competitive fleshy seaweeds.
The new study is the first to include such an extensive swath of reef data. Twenty-four of the islands are unpopulated, allowing Scripps (Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego) marine ecologist Gareth Williams and his colleagues to compare human-free conditions against damaged reefs at 15 populated islands. The results of the study generate valuable insights for understanding human impacts on reefs and managing protection against future threats.
Ultimately the scientists found that local human disturbances lead to a “decoupling” of the natural biological and physical relationships inside coral reefs. The foundations of coral reef ecosystems, called benthic communities, at populated islands were cut off from their natural relationship with the surrounding environment —and many of the relationships broke down altogether, the study showed.