Is proximity to land-based sources of coral stressors an appropriate measure of risk to coral reefs? An example from the Florida Reef Tract

Diego Lirman, Peggy Fong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

95 Scopus citations


Localized declines in coral condition are commonly linked to land-based sources of stressors that influence gradients of water quality, and the distance to sources of stressors is commonly used as a proxy for predicting the vulnerability and future status of reef resources. In this study, we evaluated explicitly whether proximity to shore and connections to coastal bays, two measures of potential land-based sources of disturbance, influence coral community and population structure, and the abundance, distribution, and condition of corals within patch reefs of the Florida Reef Tract. In the Florida Keys, long-term monitoring has documented significant differences in water quality along a cross-shelf gradient. Inshore habitats exhibit higher levels of nutrients (DIN and TP), TOC, turbidity, and light attenuation, and these levels decrease with increasing distance from shore and connections to tidal bays. In clear contrast to these patterns of water quality, corals on inshore patch reefs exhibited significantly higher coral cover, higher growth rates, and lower partial mortality rates than those documented in similar offshore habitats. Coral recruitment rates did not differ between inshore and offshore habitats. Corals on patch reefs closest to shore had well-spread population structures numerically dominated by intermediate to large colonies, while offshore populations showed narrower size-distributions that become increasingly positively skewed. Differences in size-structure of coral populations were attributed to faster growth and lower rates of partial mortality at inshore habitats. While the underlying causes for the favorable condition of inshore coral communities are not yet known, we hypothesize that the ability of corals to shift their trophic mode under adverse environmental conditions may be partly responsible for the observed patterns, as shown in other reef systems. This study, based on data collected from a uniform reef habitat type and coral species with diverse life-history and stress-response patterns from a heavily exploited reef system, showed that proximity to potential sources of stressors may not always prove an adequate proxy for assigning potential risks to reef health, and that hypothesized patterns of coral cover, population size-structure, growth, and mortality are not always directly related to water quality gradients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)779-791
Number of pages13
JournalMarine Pollution Bulletin
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2007


  • Coral growth
  • Coral population structure
  • Florida Reef Tract
  • Patch reefs
  • Water quality gradients

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science
  • Oceanography
  • Pollution


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