Coral reef resilience, tipping points and the strength of herbivory
Coral reefs increasingly are undergoing transitions from coral to macroalgal dominance. Although the functional roles of reef herbivores in controlling algae are becoming better understood, identifying possible tipping points in the herbivory-macroalgae relationships has remained a challenge. Assessment of where any coral reef ecosystem lies in relation to the coral-to-macroalgae tipping point is fundamental to understanding resilience properties, forecasting state shifts, and developing effective management practices. We conducted a multi-year field experiment in Moorea, French Polynesia to estimate these properties. While we found a sharp herbivory threshold where macroalgae escape control, ambient levels of herbivory by reef fishes were well above that needed to prevent proliferation of macroalgae. These findings are consistent with previously observed high resilience of the fore reef in Moorea. Our approach can identify vulnerable coral reef systems in urgent need of management action to both forestall shifts to macroalgae and preserve properties essential for resilience.