Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools
Log in
You are here: Home Blog Overgrown algae empirically linked to reef decline

Overgrown algae empirically linked to reef decline

By Leonard Ho - Posted Sep 20, 2012 08:00 AM
All reefkeepers know that algae is not only an eyesore but also harmful to coral growth. A new Oregon State University concludes competition with algae hurts coral by dramatically altering the composition of coral-associated microbial communities, in turn harming the health of corals. Furthermore, the decline of coral health can create a feedback mechanism that causes corals to decline even more.


From Oregon State University:

The “slippery slope to slime”: Overgrown algae causing coral reef declines


Researchers at Oregon State University for the first time have confirmed some of the mechanisms by which overfishing and nitrate pollution can help destroy coral reefs -- it appears they allow an overgrowth of algae that can bring with it unwanted pathogens, choke off oxygen and disrupt helpful bacteria. These "macroalgae," or large algal species, are big enough to essentially smother corals. They can get out of control when sewage increases nitrate levels, feeds the algae, and some of the large fish that are most effective at reducing the algal buildup are removed by fishing.

Scientists found that macroalgal competition decreased coral growth rates by about 37 percent and had other detrimental effects. Other research has documented some persistent states of hypoxia.

Researchers call this process "the slippery slope to slime."

Findings on the research were just published in PLoS One, a professional journal.

"There is evidence that coral reefs around the world are becoming more and more dominated by algae," said Rebecca Vega-Thurber, an OSU assistant professor of microbiology. "Some reefs are literally covered up in green slime, and we wanted to determine more precisely how this can affect coral health."

The new study found that higher levels of algae cause both a decrease in coral growth rate and an altered bacterial community. The algae can introduce some detrimental pathogens to the coral and at the same time reduce levels of helpful bacteria. The useful bacteria are needed to feed the corals in a symbiotic relationship, and also produce antibiotics that can help protect the corals from other pathogens.

One algae in particular, Sargassum, was found to vector, or introduce a microbe to corals, a direct mechanism that might allow introduction of foreign pathogens.

There are thousands of species of algae, and coral reefs have evolved with them in a relationship that often benefits the entire tropical marine ecosystem. When in balance, some algae grow on the reefs, providing food to both small and large fish that nibble at the algal growth. But the algal growth is normally limited by the availability of certain nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, and some large fish such as parrot fish help eat substantial amounts of algae and keep it under control.

All of those processes can be disrupted when algal growth is significantly increased by the nutrients and pollution from coastal waste water, and overfishing reduces algae consumption at the same time.

"This shows that some human actions, such as terrestrial pollution or overfishing, can affect everything in marine ecosystems right down to the microbes found on corals," Vega-Thurber said. "We've suspected before that increased algal growth can bring new diseases to corals, and now for the first time have demonstrated in experiments these shifts in microbial communities."

Some mitigation of the problem is already being done on high-value coral reefs by mechanically removing algae, Vega-Thurber said, but the best long-term solution is to reduce pollution and overfishing so that a natural balance can restore itself.

Corals are one of Earth's oldest animal life forms, evolving around 500 million years ago. They host thousands of species of fish and other animals, are a major component of marine biodiversity in the tropics, and are now in decline around the world. Reefs in the Caribbean Sea have declined more than 80 percent in recent decades.


Open access PLoS ONE paper:

Author: Leonard Ho
Location: Southern California

I'm a passionate aquarist of over 30 years, a coral reef lover, and the blog editor for Advanced Aquarist. While aquarium gadgets interest me, it's really livestock (especially fish), artistry of aquariums, and "method behind the madness" processes that captivate my attention.


Document Actions
Filed under: , ,
blog comments powered by Disqus


Contribute to our blogs!

Do you have news or discussion topics you want to see blogged?  Let us know!