Herbivory is a key process on coral reefs that can facilitate reef-building corals by excluding algae that otherwise negatively impact coral settlement, growth, and survivorship. Over the last several decades, coral cover on Caribbean reefs has declined precipitously. On many reefs, large structurally complex corals have been replaced by algae and other non-reef-building organisms, resulting in the collapse of physical structure and the loss of critical ecosystem services. The drivers of coral decline on Caribbean reefs are complex and vary among locations. On many reefs, populations of key herbivores have been greatly reduced by disease and overfishing, and this has resulted in the proliferation of algae that hinder coral recovery following major disturbances. Yet, evidence that increases in herbivory can promote coral recovery on Caribbean reefs has been mixed. Here, we discuss key contingencies that will modify the relationships between herbivores, algae, and corals and identify critical knowledge gaps that limit our ability to predict when and where herbivores are most likely to facilitate coral persistence and recovery. Impacts of herbivores on coral reef ecosystems will vary greatly in space and time and will depend on herbivore diversity and species identity. While there are still a large number of knowledge gaps, we make several management recommendations based on our current understanding of the processes that structure reef ecosystems. Reversing the fate of Caribbean coral reefs will require the development of integrated management strategies that simultaneously address multiple stressors in addition to the impacts of fisheries on herbivore assemblages.



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URL: https://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/bio_fac/443