The recent degradation of coral reefs worldwide is increasingly well documented, yet the underlying causes remain debated. In this study, we used a large-scale database on the status of coral reef communities in the Caribbean and analysed it in combination with a comprehensive set of socioeconomic and environmental databases to decouple confounding factors and identify the drivers of change in coral reef communities. Our results indicated that human activities related to agricultural land use, coastal development, overfishing and climate change had created independent and overwhelming responses in fishes, corals and macroalgae. While the effective implementation of marine protected areas (MPAs) increased the biomass of fish populations, coral reef builders and macroalgae followed patterns of change independent of MPAs. However, we also found significant ecological links among all these groups of organisms suggesting that the long-term stability of coral reefs as a whole requires a holistic and regional approach to the control of human-related stressors in addition to the improvement and establishment of new MPAs.
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