Diversity of plant-eating fishes may be key to recovery of coral reefs
Working 60 feet below the surface near the underwater laboratory Aquarius, Hay and co-author Deron E. Burkpile – who is now at Florida International University in North Miami – constructed 32 cages on a coral reef. Each cage was about two meters square and one meter tall and was sealed so that larger fish could neither enter nor leave.The number and type of fish placed into each four-square-meter cage varied. Some cages had two fish that were able to eat hard, calcified plants; some had two fish able to eat soft, but chemically-defended plants; some had one of both types, and some had no fish at all. The cages were observed for a period of ten months starting in November 2003, and the change in coral cover and seaweed growth was measured.”For the cages in which we mixed the two species of herbivores, the fish were able to remove much more of the upright seaweeds, and the corals in those areas increased in cover by more than 20 percent during ten months,” Hay said. “That is a dramatic rate of increase for a Caribbean reef.”Though the percentage growth was impressive, the actual growth in size of each coral was small, Hay noted. Prior to the experiment, the coral reef areas studied had just four to five percent coverage of live coral. After ten months, the corals caged with the two species showed six to seven percent coverage. Corals caged with just one type of fish or no fish lost as much as 30 percent of their cover during the time period.