Expert opinion was assessed to identify current knowledge gaps in determining future changes in Arabian/Persian Gulf (thereafter Gulf) coral reefs. Thirty-one participants submitted 71 research questions that were peer-assessed in terms of scientific importance (i.e., filled a knowledge gap and was a research priority) and efficiency in resource use (i.e., was highly feasible and ecologically broad). Ten research questions, in six major research areas, were highly important for both understanding Gulf coral reef ecosystems and also an efficient use of limited research resources. These questions mirrored global evaluations of the importance of understanding and evaluating biodiversity, determining the potential impacts of climate change, the role of anthropogenic impacts in structuring coral reef communities, and economically evaluating coral reef communities. These questions provide guidance for future research on coral reef ecosystems within the Gulf, and enhance the potential for assessment and management of future changes in this globally significant region.
In Hawaii, coral reefs occur across a gradient of biological (host abundance), climatic (sea surface temperature anomalies) and anthropogenic conditions from the human-impacted reefs of the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) to the pristine reefs of the northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). Coral disease surveys were conducted at 142 sites from across the Archipelago and disease patterns examined. Twelve diseases were recorded from three coral genera (Porites, Montipora, Acropora) with Porites having the highest prevalence. Porites growth anomalies (PorGAs) were significantly more prevalent within and indicative of reefs in the MHI and Porites trematodiasis (PorTrm) was significantly more prevalent within and indicative of reefs in the NWHI. Porites tissue loss syndrome (PorTLS) was also important in driving regional differences but that relationship was less clear. These results highlight the importance of understanding disease ecology when interpreting patterns of disease occurrence. PorTrm is caused by a parasitic flatworm that utilizes multiple hosts during its life cycle (fish, mollusk and coral). All three hosts must be present for the disease to occur and higher host abundance leads to higher disease prevalence. Thus, a high prevalence of PorTrm on Hawaiian reefs would be an indicator of a healthy coral reef ecosystem. In contrast, the high occurrence of PorGAs within the MHI suggests that PorGAs are related, directly or indirectly, to some environmental co-factor associated with increased human population sizes. Focusing on the three indicator diseases (PorGAs, PorTrm, PorTLS) we used statistical modeling to examine the underlying associations between disease prevalence and 14 different predictor variables (biotic and abiotic). All three diseases showed positive associations with host abundance and negative associations with thermal stress. The association with human population density differed among disease states with PorGAs showing a positive and PorTrm showing a negative association, but no significant explanatory power was offered for PorTLS.
Coral reefs are iconic, threatened ecosystems that have been in existence for approximately 500 million years, yet their continued ecological persistence seems doubtful at present. Anthropogenic modification of chemical and physical atmospheric dynamics that cause coral death by bleaching and newly emergent diseases due to increased heat and irradiation, as well as decline in calcification caused by ocean acidification due to increased CO(2), are the most important large-scale threats. On more local scales, overfishing and destructive fisheries, coastal construction, nutrient enrichment, increased runoff and sedimentation, and the introduction of nonindigenous invasive species have caused phase shifts away from corals. Already approximately 20% of the worlds reefs are lost and approximately 26% are under imminent threat. Conservation science of coral reefs is well advanced, but its practical application has often been lagging. Societal priorites, economic pressures, and legal/administrative systems of many countries are more prone to destroy rather than conserve coral-reef ecosystems. Nevertheless, many examples of successful conservation exist from the national level to community-enforced local action. When effectively managed, protected areas have contributed to regeneration of coral reefs and stocks of associated marine resources. Local communities often support coral-reef conservation in order to raise income potential associated with tourism and/or improved resource levels. Coral reefs create an annual income in S-Florida alone of over $4 billion. Thus, no conflict between development, societal welfare, and coral-reef conservation needs to exist. Despite growing threats, it is not too late for decisive action to protect and save these economically and ecologically high-value ecosystems. Conservation science plays a critical role in designing effective strategies.
Corals in the Gulf withstand summer temperatures up to 10 °C higher than corals elsewhere and have recovered from extreme temperature events in 10 years or less. This heat-tolerance of Gulf corals has positive implications for the worlds coral populations to adapt to increasing water temperatures. However, survival of Gulf corals has been severely tested by 35-37 °C temperatures five times in the last 15 years, each time causing extensive coral bleaching and mortality. Anticipated future temperature increases may therefore challenge survival of already highly stressed Gulf corals. Previously proposed translocation of Gulf corals to introduce temperature-adapted corals outside of the Gulf is assessed and determined to be problematical, and to be considered a tool of last resort. Coral culture and transplantation within the Gulf is feasible for helping maintain coral species populations and preserving genomes and adaptive capacities of Gulf corals that are endangered by future thermal stress events.
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