Patterns of fish and urchin grazing on Caribbean coral reefs: are previous results typical?
Hay, Mark E.
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Strips of the seagrass Thalassia testudinum were used in a field bioassay to assess herbivory on 11 coral reefs scattered throughout the Caribbean. Patterns of herbivory on overfished reefs in Haiti and the United States Virgin Islands were compared to patterns on seven less fished reefs (United States Virgin Islands, Panama, Honduras, Belize, and the Bahamas). On the overfished reefs, the rate of Thalassia removal increased significantly with depth, urchin densities were high, and urchin grazing was equal to, or greater than, fish grazing in shallow (<10 m deep) habitats. On reefs subject to little fishing pressure, the rate of Thalassia removal decreased with depth, urchin densities were low, and herbivorous fishes were responsible for almost all Thalassia removal. Previous studies assessing the importance of urchin grazing in the Caribbean have been conducted on overfished reefs where urchin densities were unusually high and the density of grazing fish unusually low. It is doubtful that the intensity of urchin—algal and urchin—coral interactions observed on these heavily fished reefs occurs on reefs unaffected by humans.