Increased frequency of disturbances and anthropogenic activities are predicted to have a devastating impact on coral reefs that will ultimately change the composition of reef associated fish communities. We reviewed and analysed studies that document the effects of disturbance-mediated coral loss on coral reef fishes. Meta-analysis of 17 independent studies revealed that 62% of fish species declined in abundance within 3 years of disturbances that resulted in >10% decline in coral cover. Abundances of species reliant on live coral for food and shelter consistently declined during this time frame, while abundance of some species that feed on invertebrates, algae and/or detritus increased. The response of species, particularly those expected to benefit from the immediate loss of coral, is, however, variable and is attributed to erratic replenishment of stocks, ecological versatility of species and sublethal responses, such as changes in growth, body condition and feeding rates. The diversity of fish communities was found to be negatively and linearly correlated to disturbance-mediated coral loss. Coral loss >20% typically resulted in a decline in species richness of fish communities, although diversity may initially increase following small declines in coral cover from high coverage. Disturbances that result in an immediate loss of habitat complexity (e.g. severe tropical storms), have a greater impact on fishes from all trophic levels, compared with disturbances that kill corals, but leave the reef framework intact (e.g. coral bleaching and outbreaks of Acanthaster planci). This is most evident among small bodied species and suggests the long-term consequences of coral loss through coral bleaching and crown-of-thorn starfish outbreaks may be much more substantial than the short-term effects currently documented.
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