Can Herbivore Management Increase the Persistence of Indo-Pacific Coral Reefs?
Due to climate change, coral reefs have experienced mass bleaching, and mortality events in recent years. Although coral reefs are unlikely to persist in their current form unless climate change can be addressed, local management can have a role to play by extending the time frame over which there are functional reef systems capable of recovery. Here we consider the potential application of one form of local management – management of herbivorous fishes. The premise behind this approach is that increased herbivory could shift reef algal assemblages to states that are benign or beneficial for corals, thereby increasing corals’ ability to recover from destructive events such as bleaching and to thrive in periods between events. With a focus on Indo-Pacific coral reefs, we review what is known about the underlying processes of herbivory and coral-algal competition that ultimately affect the ability of corals to grow, persist, and replenish themselves. We then critically assess evidence of effectiveness or otherwise of herbivore management within marine protected areas (MPAs) to better understand why many MPAs have not improved outcomes for corals, and more importantly to identify the circumstances in which that form of management would be most likely to be effective. Herbivore management is not a panacea, but has the potential to enhance coral reef persistence in the right circumstances. Those include that: (i) absent management, there is an “algal problem” – i.e., insufficient herbivory to maintain algae in states that are benign or beneficial for corals; and (ii) management actions are able to increase net herbivory. As increased corallivory is a potentially widespread negative consequence of management, we consider some of the circumstances in which that is most likely to be a problem as well as potential solutions. Because the negative effects of certain algae are greatest for coral settlement and early survivorship, it may be that maintaining sufficient herbivory is particularly important in promoting recovery from destructive events such as mass bleaching. Thus, herbivore management can have a role to play as part of a wider strategy to manage and reduce the threats that currently imperil coral reefs.