Killer Seaweeds: Allelopathy Against Fijian Corals

Funding Agency: NSF (2009-2014) PI: Mark Hay

Abstract: Coral reefs are in dramatic global decline, with reefs commonly converting from species-rich and topographically-complex communities dominated by corals to species-poor and topographically-simplified communities dominated by seaweeds. These phase-shifts result in fundamental loss of ecosystem function. Despite debate about whether coral-to-algal transitions are commonly a primary cause, or simply a consequence, of coral mortality, rigorous field investigation of seaweed-coral competition has received limited attention.

We know little about how the outcome of seaweed-coral competition varies among species or the relative importance of different competitive mechanisms in facilitating seaweed dominance. We are conducting field experiments in the tropical South Pacific (Fiji) to determine the effects of seaweeds on corals, which seaweeds are most damaging to corals, the role allelopathic lipids that are transferred via contact in producing these effects, the identity and surface concentrations of these metabolites, and the dynamic nature of seaweed metabolite production and coral response following contact. hay-coralvsseaweed-rack.jpgWe are also determining the herbivorous fishes most responsible for controlling allelopathic seaweeds, the roles of seaweed metabolites in allelopathy vs herbivore deterrence, and the potential for better managing and conserving critical reef herbivores so as to slow or reverse conversion of coral reef to seaweed meadows.

Our results indicate that seaweeds may commonly damage corals via lipid-soluble allelochemicals. Such chemically-mediated interactions could kill or damage adult corals and produce the suppression of coral fecundity and recruitment noted by previous investigators and could precipitate positive feedback mechanisms making reef recovery increasingly unlikely as seaweed abundance increases. Chemically-mediated seaweed-coral competition may play a critical role in the degradation of present-day coral reefs. Increasing information on which seaweeds are most aggressive to corals and which herbivores best limit these seaweeds may prove useful in better managing reefs to facilitate resilience and possible recovery despite threats of global-scale stresses. Fiji is well positioned to rapidly use our findings for better management of reef resources because it has already erected >260 MPAs, Fijian villagers have already bought-in to the value of MPAs, and the Fiji Locally-Managed Marine Area (FLMMA) Network is well organized to get information to villagers in a culturally sensitive and useful manner.