The relationship between macroalgae taxa and human disturbance on central Pacific coral reefs
Climate change and human disturbance threatens coral reefs across the Pacific, yet there is little consensus on what characterizes a “healthy” reef. Benthic cover, particularly low coral cover and high macroalgae cover, are often used as an indicator of reef degradation, despite uncertainty about the typical algal community compositions associated with either near-pristine or damaged reefs. In this study, we examine differences in coral and algal community compositions and their response to human disturbance and past heat stress, by analysing 25 sites along a gradient of human disturbance in Majuro and Arno Atolls of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Our results show that total macroalgae cover indicators of reef degradation may mask the influence of local human disturbance, with different taxa responding to disturbance differently. Identifying macroalgae to a lower taxonomic level (e.g. the genus level) is critical for a more accurate measure of Pacific coral reef health.