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Keywords:

  • Africa;
  • biodiversity;
  • climate change;
  • environmental stress;
  • latitudinal patterns;
  • marine protected areas;
  • prioritization;
  • resilience;
  • spatial autocorrelation

Abstract

Climatic–oceanographic stress and coral reef diversity were mapped in the western Indian Ocean (WIO) in order to determine if there were associations between high diversity coral reefs and regions with low-to-moderate climate stress. A multivariate stress model developed to estimate environmental exposure to stress, an empirical index of the coral community's susceptibility to stress, and field data on numbers of fish and corals taxa from 197 WIO sites were overlain to evaluate these associations. Exposure to stress was modeled from satellite data based on nine geophysical–biological oceanographic characteristics known to influence coral bleaching (i.e. temperature, light, and current variables). The environmental stress model and the coral community's susceptibility index were moderately correlated (r=−0.51) with southern and eastern parts of the WIO identified as areas with low environmental stress and coral communities with greater dominance of bleaching stress-sensitive taxa. Numbers of coral and fish taxa were positive and moderately correlated (r=0.47) but high diversity regions for fish were in the north and west while diversity was highest for corals in central regions from Tanzania to northwestern Madagascar. Combining three and four of these variables into composite maps identified a region from southern Kenya to northern Mozambique across to northern–eastern Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands and the Mozambique–South Africa border as areas where low-moderate environmental exposure overlaps with moderate-high taxonomic diversity. In these areas management efforts aimed at maintaining high-diversity and intact ecosystems are considered least likely to be undermined by climate disturbances in the near term. Reducing additional human disturbances, such as fishing and pollution, in these areas is expected to improve the chances for their persistence. These reefs are considered a high priority for increased local, national, and international management efforts aimed at establishing coral reef refugia for climate change impacts.