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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Investigating human impacts to coral reefs in the Republic of the Marshall Islands Cannon, Sara E.


Both local and global threats are affecting the health of coral reefs worldwide. In addition to endangering the livelihoods and source of food for millions of people, threats to coral reefs may result in flattening reefs, which reduce habitat complexity and the ability of reefs to protect shorelines from erosion. This could be particularly detrimental to low-lying Pacific atolls like those found in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). I examined the influence of local human disturbance and heat stress on coral and algal community composition in Majuro and Arno Atolls in the RMI to explore how human disturbance affects coral and algal communities, and how to best characterize those communities. With a population of approximately 30,000 people, Majuro is home to the largest population of all of the RMI's 29 atolls and underwent extensive human modifications after American occupation during World War II. By contrast, Arno is home to fewer than 2,000 people and has remained relatively undisturbed. In June of 2016, I conducted benthic surveys at 25 sites along a gradient of human impacts across the two atolls. At each site at 10m depth, I measured percent cover of coral and algae genera and size-frequency of coral. I also utilized limited historical data to explore how reefs had recovered after a thermal stress event in 2014. In order to estimate human disturbance, I used the mean normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) of the nearby coastline, which measures vegetation intensity. The coral and macroalgae composition of sites differed by atoll, mean NDVI, and wind and wave exposure, but not by sea surface temperature. The most degraded sites had low macroalgae cover and were dominated by turf algae, sponges, and cyanobacteria. One genus of macroalgae, Halimeda, was associated with sites that had low disturbance, while another, Hypnea, was correlated with higher disturbance. These results suggest that using macroalgae as an indicator of degradation may mask the influence of local human disturbance on reef community composition. Instead, it is important to consider identifying other indicator taxa and to measure coral and macroalgae cover to at least the genus level.

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