Spatial benthic community analysis of shallow coral reefs to support coastal management in Culebra Island, Puerto Rico
Caribbean coral reefs provide essential ecosystem services to society, including fisheries, tourism and shoreline protection from coastal erosion. However, these reefs are also exhibiting major declining trends, leading to the evolution of novel ecosystems dominated by non-reef building taxa, with potentially altered ecological functions. In the search for effective management strategies, this study characterized coral reefs in front of a touristic beach which provides economic benefits to the surrounding coastal communities yet faces increasing anthropogenic pressures and conservation challenges. Haphazard photo-transects were used to address spatial variation patterns in the reef’s benthic community structure in eight locations. Statistically significant differences were found with increasing distance from the shoreline, reef rugosity, Diadema antillarum density, among reef locations, and as a function of recreational use. Nearshore reefs reflected higher percent macroalgal cover, likely due to increased exposure from both recreational activities and nearby unsustainable land-use practices. However, nearshore reefs still support a high abundance of the endangered reef-building coral Orbicella annularis, highlighting the need to conserve these natural shoreline protectors. There is an opportunity for local stakeholders and regulatory institutions to collaboratively implement sea-urchin propagation, restoration of endangered Acroporid coral populations, and zoning of recreational densities across reefs. Our results illustrate vulnerable reef hotspots where these management interventions are needed and recommend guidelines to address them.