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Keywords:

  • Barrier reef;
  • belize;
  • fore reef;
  • phase shift;
  • sponge community;
  • zones comparison

Abstract

Changes in the relative abundance of benthic groups on the barrier fore reef at Carrie Bow Cay, Belize, point to a significant reduction of corals and an expansion of the sponge community in 1995–2009. Fifty-one species are now present in the four geomorphological zones of this reef: the low-relief spur-and-groove zone, the inner reef slope, the outer ridge, and the fore-reef slope (to a depth of 30 m). Five species are new additions to the sponge fauna reported for Belize, and six species account for 42.6% of the total assemblage: Niphates erecta (9.60%), Aiolochroia crassa (8.8%), Niphates digitalis (6.9%), Callyspongia plicifera (6.63%), Aplysina archeri (5.37%) and Xestospongia muta (5.37%). Species richness, average density, diversity and evenness indexes are statistically similar in these four zones but some species appear to be more dominant in certain areas. In the same 30 years, coral cover has decreased by more than 90%, while the octocoral cover has greatly increased (by as much as 10-fold in the low-relief spur-and-groove zone). Thus the Carrie Bow fore reef appears to be undergoing a transition from coral dominance in the late 1970s to algae dominance today, with other benthic groups such as sponges and octocorals showing signs of gradual recovery.