Coral reef degradation resulting from nutrient enrichment of coastal waters is of increasing global concern. Although effects of nutrients on coral reef organisms have been demonstrated in the laboratory, there is little direct evidence of nutrient effects on coral reef biota in situ. The ENCORE experiment investigated responses of coral reef organisms and processes to controlled additions of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (N) and/or phosphorus (P) on an offshore reef (One Tree Island) at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. A multi-disciplinary team assessed a variety of factors focusing on nutrient dynamics and biotic responses. A controlled and replicated experiment was conducted over two years using twelve small patch reefs ponded at low tide by a coral rim. Treatments included three control reefs (no nutrient addition) and three+N reefs (NH4Cl added), three+P reefs (KH2PO4 added), and three+N+P reefs. Nutrients were added as pulses at each low tide (ca twice per day) by remotely operated units. There were two phases of nutrient additions. During the initial, low-loading phase of the experiment nutrient pulses (mean DOSE=11.5 μM NH4+; 2.3 μM PO4−3) rapidly declined, reaching near-background levels (mean=0.9 μM NH4+; 0.5 μM PO4−3) within 2–3 h. A variety of biotic processes, assessed over a year during this initial nutrient loading phase, were not significantly affected, with the exception of coral reproduction, which was affected in all nutrient treatments. In Acropora longicyathus and A. aspera, fewer successfully developed embryos were formed, and in A. longicyathus fertilization rates and lipid levels decreased. In the second, high-loading, phase of ENCORE an increased nutrient dosage (mean DOSE=36.2 μM NH4+; 5.1 μM PO4−3) declining to means of 11.3 μM NH4+ and 2.4 μM PO4−3 at the end of low tide) was used for a further year, and a variety of significant biotic responses occurred. Encrusting algae incorporated virtually none of the added nutrients. Organisms containing endosymbiotic zooxanthellae (corals and giant clams) assimilated dissolved nutrients rapidly and were responsive to added nutrients. Coral mortality, not detected during the initial low-loading phase, became evident with increased nutrient dosage, particularly in Pocillopora damicornis. Nitrogen additions stunted coral growth, and phosphorus additions had a variable effect. Coral calcification rate and linear extension increased in the presence of added phosphorus but skeletal density was reduced, making corals more susceptible to breakage. Settlement of all coral larvae was reduced in nitrogen treatments, yet settlement of larvae from brooded species was enhanced in phosphorus treatments. Recruitment of stomatopods, benthic crustaceans living in coral rubble, was reduced in nitrogen and nitrogen plus phosphorus treatments. Grazing rates and reproductive effort of various fish species were not affected by the nutrient treatments. Microbial nitrogen transformations in sediments were responsive to nutrient loading with nitrogen fixation significantly increased in phosphorus treatments and denitrification increased in all treatments to which nitrogen had been added. Rates of bioerosion and grazing showed no significant effects of added nutrients.
ENCORE has shown that reef organisms and processes investigated in situ were impacted by elevated nutrients. Impacts were dependent on dose level, whether nitrogen and/or phosphorus were elevated and were often species-specific. The impacts were generally sub-lethal and subtle and the treated reefs at the end of the experiment were visually similar to control reefs. Rapid nutrient uptake indicates that nutrient concentrations alone are not adequate to assess nutrient condition of reefs. Sensitive and quantifiable biological indicators need to be developed for coral reef ecosystems. The potential bioindicators identified in ENCORE should be tested in future research on coral reef/nutrient interactions. Synergistic and cumulative effects of elevated nutrients and other environmental parameters, comparative studies of intact vs. disturbed reefs, offshore vs. inshore reefs, or the ability of a nutrient-stressed reef to respond to natural disturbances require elucidation. An expanded understanding of coral reef responses to anthropogenic impacts is necessary, particularly regarding the subtle, sub-lethal effects detected in the ENCORE studies.
Koop, K, Booth, D, Broadbent, AD, Brodie, J, Bucher, DJ, Capone, D, Coll, J, Dennison, W, Erdmann, M, Harrison, PL, Hoegh-Guldberg, O, Hutchings, P, Jones, GB, Larkum, AWD, O’Neil, J, Steven, A, Tentori, E, Ward, S, Yellowlees, D & Williamson, J 2001, 'ENCORE: The effect of nutrient enrichment on coral reefs. Synthesis of results and conclusions', Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 91-120.
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