Modelling the effects of climate change on a Caribbean coral reef food web

Global climate change and local anthropogenic pressures are among the primary factors leading to the decline of functional biodiversity and critical habitats in coral reefs. Coral bleaching, the potential decreases in dissolved oxygen concentration (deoxygenation) and pH (acidification) in the oceans can induce severe changes in coral reef ecosystem biodiversity and functionality. The main objective of this study was to apply four Ecopath with Ecosim models of a Caribbean coral reef system to individually and collectively model the effects of coral bleaching on the trophic web, deoxygenation on fish, and acidification on calcifying organisms. These three sources of stress were used as forcing functions on several trophic groups depending on the model. The forcing functions were scaled according to the species’ responses achieved in previously tested climate change marine models. For the bleaching model, a mediation function was also considered that represents the degree of coral reef protection on small and intermediate fish groups. The dynamic models were constructed from an extensive database of 171 reef fish species (abundance and biomass) and benthic communities from 13 coral reefs that were evenly distributed parallel to approximately 400 km of the Mexican Caribbean coast as well as fishery landings in this area. Simulations driven with these different forcing and mediation functions predicted different changes in the biomasses of fish and non-fish functional groups as well as the biomass of the functional groups of fished species. Coral bleaching and pH reduction caused a phase shift to a decrease in coral biomass and an increase in primary producer biomass. This shift produced a cascading decrease in the biomass of small and intermediate fish groups. Additionally, the fished functional group biomass increased with coral bleaching but decreased with the effects of decreased oxygen on fish and pH on calcifying organisms. The biomasses of certain macroinvertebrate functional groups were predicted to respond favourably to the combined effect of the sources of stress. However, when all the sources of stress were combined, we found a general decrease of biomass in fish, non-fish, and some commercially valuable fish and macroinvertebrate functional groups, suggesting that the combined effects of stress induced synergistic effects as a result of global climate change and overfishing, which can result in a potential loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in coral reefs.

Alva-Basurto J. C. & Arias-González J. E., 2014. Modelling the effects of climate change on a Caribbean coral reef food web. Ecological Modelling 289:1-14. Article (subscription required).

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