Subregional variation in cover and diversity of hard coral (Scleractinia) in the Western Province, Solomon Islands following an unprecedented global bleaching event
Coral reefs are critically important marine ecosystems that are threatened worldwide by cumulative impacts of global climate change and local stressors. The Solomon Islands comprise the southwestern boundary of the Coral Triangle, the global center of coral diversity located in the Indo-Pacific, and represent a bright spot of comparatively healthy coral reef ecosystems. However, reports on the status of coral reefs in the Solomon Islands are based on monitoring conducted at 5 stations in 2003–2004 and 2006–2007, with no information on how corals in this region have responded to more recent global bleaching events and other local stressors. In this study, we compare reef condition (substrate composition) and function (taxonomic and morphological diversity of hard corals) among 15 reefs surveyed in the Western Province, Solomon Islands that span a range of local disturbance and conservation histories. Overall, we found high cover of live hard coral (15–64%) and diverse coral assemblages despite an unprecedented 36-month global bleaching event in the three years leading up to our surveys in 2018. However, there was significant variation in coral cover and diversity across the 15 reefs surveyed, suggesting that impacts of global disturbance events are moderated at smaller scales by local anthropogenic factors (fisheries extraction, land-use impacts, marine management) and environmental (hydrodynamics) conditions. Our study provides evidence that relatively healthy reefs persist at some locations in the Solomon Islands and that local stewardship practices have the potential to impact reef condition at subregional scales. As coral reef conservation becomes increasingly urgent in the face of escalating cumulative threats, prioritising sites for management efforts is critical. Based on our findings and the high dependency of Solomon Islanders on coral reef ecosystem services, we advocate that the Western Province, Solomon Islands be considered of high conservation priority.