• Open Access

Combined effects of two stressors on Kenyan coral reefs are additive or antagonistic, not synergistic


Emily S. Darling, Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, British Columbia, V5A 1S6, Canada. Tel: +1-778-782-3989; fax: +1-778-782-3496. E-mail: edarling@sfu.ca


A challenge for conservation science is predicting the impacts of co-occurring human activities on ecological systems. Multiple anthropogenic and natural stressors impact ecosystems globally and are expected to jeopardize their ecological functions and the success of conservation and management initiatives. The possibility that two or more stressors interact synergistically is of particular concern, but such nonadditive effects remain largely unidentified in nature. A long-term data set of hard coral cover from Kenyan reefs was used to examine the independent and interactive effects of two stressors: fishing and a temperature anomaly in 1998 that caused mass coral bleaching and mortality. While both stressors decreased coral cover, fishing by 51% and bleaching by 74%, they did not interact synergistically. Instead, their combined effect was antagonistic or weakly additive. The observed nonsynergistic response may be caused by the presence of one dominant stressor, bleaching, and cotolerance of coral taxa to both bleaching and fishing stressors. Consequently, coral bleaching has been the dominant driver of coral loss on Kenyan reefs and while marine reserves offer many benefits to reef ecosystems, they may not provide corals with a refuge from climate change.