Acroporid Coral Status & Conservation

elkhorn coral
Elkhorn Coral
(Acropora palmata)
Photo Credit: SEFSC

staghorn coral
Staghorn Coral
(Acropora cervicornis)
Photo Credit: SEFSC

elkhorn coral mortality, timelapse
Figure shows the demise of an elkhorn coral colony over time, most of the mortality was caused by the corallivorous snail (Coralliophila abbreviata)
(Acropora palmata)
Photo Credit: SEFSC

Acropora palmata (elkhorn coral) is one of the dominant framework builders on Caribbean reefs. Its branching morphology and tendency to form dense mono-specific stands naturally provides shelter to a variety of fish and other ecologically and economically important reef organisms, including Diadema antillarum (Long-spined sea urchin) and Panulirus argus (Caribbean spiny lobster).

Acropora cervicornis (staghorn coral) has cylindrical branches and thrives in moderate wave energy reef zones including the fore reef "buttress" zone, back reef and patch reefs. Its dense branching structure and fast growth rate is important in the sediment and rubble binding processes that form reef framework.

Since the 1970s, acroporid species in the Caribbean have experienced extreme and accelerating declines estimated at 90-98% throughout their range. Much of the decline has been attributed to widespread white-band disease but the overall loss is thought to have been exacerbated by more frequent and intense bleaching events, hurricanes as well as other diseases and anthropogenic effects.

Loss of these structurally complex framework builders has diminished zonation and thus species diversity on Caribbean reefs. The severe and protracted population decline led NOAA Fisheries to designate the listing of these species as "threatened" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in May 2006.

The project is centered on long term demographic monitoring of Acropora palmata to collect basic population data such as the numbers and sizes of individual colonies as well as recruitment (birth rates) and mortality (death rates) so that changes to the population can be documented and a future trajectory can be estimated. Surveys also asses the condition of the population by documenting disease, predation and other aspects that may hinder recovery. The condition assessments allow us to understand the relative impacts of these stressors so that managers can prioritize conservation efforts and resources. These data can used for demographic modeling by our collaborators and provide insight on the future trajectory of the population under various disturbance and proactive conservation regimes (see Vardi & Williams exit arrow icon).

The current monitoring activities began in 2004 in the upper Florida Keys and in 2006 comparable monitoring was initiated in Curaçao. A detailed protocol was released in 2006 to encourage partners to conduct surveys using comparable methods so that data could be more easily compared. In 2010, NMFS Division of Protected Resources funded the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission to expand comparable demographic monitoring of elkhorn coral throughout south Florida, the Dry Tortugas, the USVI and Puerto Rico.

This project is funded by the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program and the NMFS Southeast Regional Office.

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