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NCCOS Project

Coral Reef Ecosystem Studies: Integrating Science and Management in the Caribbean

This project began in January 2002 and was completed in December 2009

In response to the continued decline of coral reef ecosystem health, we developed a research program to define and understand the causes and effects of reef degradation and provided managers information and tools to help reverse the degradation of U.S. Caribbean reef ecosystems. Our work integrated ecological and social processes of the coral reefs in Puerto Rico and St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, resulting in a greater understanding of coral reef function.

Why We Care
Compared to other marine ecosystems, coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to land-based stressors resulting from coastal development in the watershed. Coral reefs are threatened by numerous human and natural stressors, including sediments washing in from the land, nutrient enrichment, increasing temperatures associated with climate change, over harvesting, and storms. These stressors make corals more susceptible to diseases, and they are major causes of reef degradation in the Caribbean.

What We Did
In 2003, a science-based, integrated approach to understand coral reef dynamics and processes and to provide tools and options for coral reef management was initiated. The program was based at three sites: La Parguera and Culebra, Puerto Rico, and St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, all of which contained marine-protected areas (MPAs) in various stages of development. Research conducted at these sites built upon available research and historical data going back 40 years, resulting in a better understanding of coral reef function and providing a scientific basis for reef conservation and restoration.

The program:

  • Evaluated the effectiveness of MPAs by comparing marine reserves at each study site.
  • Assessed the impacts of fishery closures of the reefs.
  • Developed user-friendly geographic information system (GIS) models as an ecosystem management tool.
  • Evaluated the socioeconomic processes affecting the implementation and success of each reserve.

The results of this work were used to provide managers of MPAs with data and assessments enabling them to refine their coral reef management practices and to implement the best restoration activities.

This work was part of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Studies (CRES) program. The project team was led by Dr. Richard Appeldoorn of the University of Puerto Rico with co-investigation from Dr. Mark Monaco of the NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.

Additional Resources

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Peer-Reviewed Publications

  • Christensen, J.D., C. Jeffrey, M.E. Monaco, C. Caldow, M.S. Kendall, and R.S. Appledoorn. 2003. Cross-shelf habitat utilization patterns of reef fishes in southwestern Puerto Rico. Gulf and Caribbean Research 14:9–27. Contact John.Christensen@noaa.gov for more information.
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