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Saipan, United States

Houk P.,University of Guam | Houk P.,Pacific Marine Resources Institute | Musburger C.,University of Hawaii at Manoa
Marine Ecology Progress Series | Year: 2013

Coral reef assemblages, trophic interactions, and food web stability were examined across a remote and densely populated atoll, in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). The biomass of sharks, large-bodied piscivores, and secondary invertebrate consumers was expectedly larger in the absence of major human populations. Less intuitively, we report a doubling in the density and biomass of small-bodied acanthurids with significant human presence, whereas large-bodied parrotfishes were halved. These trends provided evidence for prey release of small acanthurids, but also indicated a reduction in grazing function given that power-law relationships govern fish size and physiology. Path analyses supported the conjecture that apex predator biomass enhanced the abundance of large-bodied herbivores, with ensuing benefits to calcifying benthic substrates and coral diversity. Human populations, as low as 40 individuals, had opposing linked interactions. The study next used species abundances to depict food chain interaction strengths, and multivariate measures of heterogeneity to depict food chain diversity. The removal of few strong links along the gradient of investigation (i.e. Acropora corals and sharks), as well as numerous weak links, was associated with fish assemblages and benthic substrates that had reduced grazing and calcification potential, respectively. The results inferred that a reduction in the functional response time of trophic guilds will follow perturbations (i.e. reduce stability), synonymous to food webs with low return rates to their modeled, stable con figuration. This study provides a broader perspective for interpreting how humans and apex predators influence ecological stability across (RMI) coral reef ecosystems. © Inter-Research 2013. Source

Houk P.,Pacific Marine Resources Institute | Raubani J.,PMB
Journal of Oceanography | Year: 2010

This study identifies linkages between regional ocean productivity and the emergence of large Acanthaster planci starfish populations in Vanuatu. Positive correlations were found between wind stress, chlorophyll-a, and upwelling during January-February 2009, corresponding with coral-eating starfish occurrences. Further, temporal associations have existed between monthly wind stress and upwelling since 2000, and were predictors of past starfish events. Links between starfish emergence and oceanographic features are discussed, drawing upon evidence from other asteroid echinoderms. High regional productivity associated with anomalous oceanographic conditions in Vanuatu, and globally, can be used as early warning indicators of probable, future starfish emergence to aid the foundation and success of local management efforts. © 2010 Springer Science+Business Media B.V. Source

Houk P.,University of Guam | Houk P.,Pacific Marine Resources Institute | Benavente D.,CNMI Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality | Iguel J.,CNMI Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality | And 2 more authors.
PLoS ONE | Year: 2014

The individual contribution of natural disturbances, localized stressors, and environmental regimes upon longer-term reef dynamics remains poorly resolved for many locales despite its significance for management. This study examined coral reefs in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands across a 12-year period that included elevated Crown-of-Thorns Starfish densities (COTS) and tropical storms that were drivers of spatially-inconsistent disturbance and recovery patterns. At the island scale, disturbance impacts were highest on Saipan with reduced fish sizes, grazing urchins, and water quality, despite having a more favorable geological foundation for coral growth compared with Rota. However, individual drivers of reef dynamics were better quantified through site-level investigations that built upon island generalizations. While COTS densities were the strongest predictors of coral decline as expected, interactive terms that included wave exposure and size of the overall fish assemblages improved models (R2 and AIC values). Both wave exposure and fish size diminished disturbance impacts and had negative associations with COTS. However, contrasting findings emerged when examining net ecological change across the 12-year period. Wave exposure had a ubiquitous, positive influence upon the net change in favorable benthic substrates (i.e. corals and other heavily calcifying substrates, R2 = 0.17 for all reeftypes grouped), yet including interactive terms for herbivore size and grazing urchin densities, as well as stratifying by major reeftypes, substantially improved models (R2 = 0.21 to 0.89, lower AIC scores). Net changes in coral assemblages (i.e., coral ordination scores) were more sensitive to herbivore size or the water quality proxy acting independently (R2 = 0.28 to 0.44). We conclude that COTS densities were the strongest drivers of coral decline, however, net ecological change was most influenced by localized stressors, especially herbivore sizes and grazing urchin densities. Interestingly, fish size, rather than biomass, was consistently a better predictor, supporting allometric, size-and-function relationships of fish assemblages. Management implications are discussed. © 2014 Houk et al. Source

Houk P.,Pacific Marine Resources Institute | Starmer J.,Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Coastal Resources Management
Coral Reefs | Year: 2010

A central problem for jurisdictional scientists and managers is to reconcile how multiple environmental regimes, encompassing continuous, intermittent and human disturbances, influence pertinent ecological management targets. The presence of heterogeneous environments throughout the volcanic Northern Mariana Islands (NMI), coupled with the availability of descriptive physical data, form the basis examining environmental-ecological relationships. Since 2003, coral abundances and macrobiota (all visibly recognizable taxa greater than 2 cm) occurrences have been estimated at 42 reef slopes along the volcanic archipelago. Analyses showed that reef types acted as surrogates of coral growth capacity and the modern assemblages residing upon them, being highest and most favorable, respectively, where relatively high salinity levels, low-to-moderate wave exposure, and an absence of volcanic activity for ~90 years existed. However, island size was the greatest constraint on species richness overall, but relations with corals were dampened by volcanic activity and increased for sponges and algae where greater connection with the island aquifer existed (i. e., relatively low salinity levels). The number of years since volcanic activity has occurred was positively related to the residuals of species-area relationships and coral cover, with a ~90-year time frame predicted for recovery. Notably, no relationships with watershed characteristics or distance from CNMI's main fishing port and coral-reef assemblages or species richness were found. Further examination of specific management concerns, such as fisheries and feral animal populations, should be designed to account for the inherent differences in driving environmental regimes. Management strategies focused upon conserving biodiversity and ecosystem function should be centered at the island level, matching the operational scale of dominant environmental-ecological relationships. Marine reserves represent a strategy pertinent for the remote NMI; a spatial structure is discussed. © Springer-Verlag 2009. Source

Houk P.,University of Guam | Houk P.,Pacific Marine Resources Institute | Van Woesik R.,Florida Institute of Technology
BioScience | Year: 2013

Despite a steady growth in coral-reef monitoring efforts, the application of the monitoring results to decisionmaking often remains limited, because questions that can be answered are frequently posed after monitoring commences, rather than having the questions define the data to be gathered. We review how hierarchical, question-driven frameworks can improve monitoring designs and how added attention to high-population-variance structures play a central role in this process. Stratification is necessary to avoid the high variance and low power caused by sampling across coral-reef habitats. Yet, knowing when and where to introduce stratification into sampling designs requires information on the environmental and biological processes that drive species abundance patterns. Using case studies, we review some limitations of approaches that back-calculate the effort required to attain desirable statistical power and highlight some approaches to better account for the heterogeneous nature of coral-reef assemblages in monitoring designs. © 2013 by American Institute of Biological Sciences. All rights reserved. Source

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