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NCCOS Study Finds Sharks and Top Predators Depend on Benthic Algae in Healthy Coral Reefs

NOAA researchers obtain a tissue sample from a tiger shark in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument; the shark was released unharmed. Credit: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

NOAA researchers obtain a tissue sample from a tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument; the shark was released unharmed. Credit: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

In a newly published study, NCCOS researcher link sharks and other top predators with primary producers (benthic algae) in pristine, healthy coral reef ecosystems.  “We used chemical signatures of carbon and nitrogen found in the tissues of the algae, invertebrates, fish, and sharks from the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM) to trace the extent benthic algae influences the food chain of healthy coral reef ecosystems, dominated by apex-predators like sharks,” said Dr. Carolyn Currin, NCCOS scientists and lead co-author on the study.

Remote healthy coral reefs like those found in the PMNM are unique because they are dominated by large numbers of apex predators, the large carnivorous fishes such as sharks, jacks, and snapper. Like all coral reefs, the PMNM is supported by photosynthesis by algae

 The study results have immediate implications for management of healthy coral reef resources and the restoration of unhealthy reefs.  Because the PMNM ecosystem was found to be heavily dependent on algae growing on the sea floor, any impacts to the reef and its algae – like damage from bottom trawling, coral bleaching or other threats – could influence the organisms higher on the food web.

“Anything affecting native algal species, such as sedimentation, dredging, or the spread of non-native invasive algae, will ultimately impact the abundance of prized food fish such as snapper or jacks,” said Randall Kosaki, NOAA Deputy Superintendent of Papahānaumokuākea, and a co-author on the study.  “Taking care of the reef itself will help to ensure healthy fish populations.”

This study was a collaboration between researchers from NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and PMNM of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.  For more information contact: Anna.Hilting@noaa.gov.

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Shorter web link for sharing: http://coastalscience.noaa.gov/news/?p=9280

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