Scientists Were Misled for Decades – New Study Unveils the Deceptive Role of Seaweed in Reef Health

Coral Reef Illustration

New research has demonstrated that seaweed, long used as an indicator of coral reef health, may be providing misleading information. The study, which analyzed data from over 1,200 oceanic sites, suggests that different species of macroalgae react differently to contamination, potentially obscuring signs of reef stress and misdirecting conservation efforts.

Scientists have been using seaweed as an indicator of coral reef health for decades.

But what if the seaweed was misleading them?

New University of British Columbia research reveals it was, and scientists need new ways to determine whether human activity is harming a particular reef.

“This is especially critical today, given that reefs globally are threatened by climate-driven stressors,” said Dr. Sara Cannon, a postdoctoral fellow at the UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and the study’s lead author.

Local species behave differently

Seaweed belongs to a group of organisms called macroalgae. Macroalgae at the ocean’s surface has long served as a proxy for reef health, because it is relatively quick and easy to measure. Since the 1970s, scientists have assumed that local human impacts increase macroalgae while simultaneously damaging underlying reefs.

However, the study just published in Global Change Biology looked at data from over 1,200 sites in the Indian and Pacific Oceans over a 16-year period and revealed that this approach is misleading and may even have hidden signs of reef stress.

For example, macroalgae coverage depends heavily on the species growing in a particular area. Sargassum is less likely to grow in water contaminated by agricultural runoff, but Halimeda will thrive. In both cases, a reef will suffer.

The global research team concluded that using macroalgae coverage as an indicator of local human impacts can actually obscure how much our actions are harming reefs, and cause scientists to misidentify the reefs most in need of intervention.

Reference: “Macroalgae exhibit diverse responses to human disturbances on coral reefs” by Sara E. Cannon, Simon D. Donner, Angela Liu, Pedro C. González Espinosa, Andrew H. Baird, Julia K. Baum, Andrew G. Bauman, Maria Beger, Cassandra E. Benkwitt, Matthew J. Birt, Yannick Chancerelle, Joshua E. Cinner, Nicole L. Crane, Vianney Denis, Martial Depczynski, Nur Fadli, Douglas Fenner, Christopher J. Fulton, Yimnang Golbuu, Nicholas A. J. Graham, James Guest, Hugo B. Harrison, Jean-Paul A. Hobbs, Andrew S. Hoey, Thomas H. Holmes, Peter Houk, Fraser A. Januchowski-Hartley, Jamaluddin Jompa, Chao-Yang Kuo, Gino Valentino Limmon, Yuting V. Lin, Timothy R. McClanahan, Dominic Muenzel, Michelle J. Paddack, Serge Planes, Morgan S. Pratchett, Ben Radford, James Davis Reimer, Zoe T. Richards, Claire L. Ross, John Rulmal Jr., Brigitte Sommer, Gareth J. Williams and Shaun K. Wilson, 5 April 2023, Global Change Biology.
DOI: 10.1111/gcb.16694

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