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Special Journal Issue Compiles Advances in Coral Reef Ecosystem Science

June 26, 2024

New research dives to new depths to advance our knowledge on coral reef ecosystems in a special issue of Bulletin of Marine Science.

A SCUBA diver swims along a coral reef with a writing slate and measuring device, reef fish swimming across the field of view A NOAA diver surveys a coral reef. Credit: National Park Service/Rob Waara

The Bulletin of Marine Science released a special issue of its scientific journal, Advances in Ecosystem-Scale Coral Reef Visual Surveys. This special issue featured groundbreaking scientific research led by NOAA and our partners that is deepening our knowledge about coral reefs.

This special issue compiled two decades of results from large-scale coral reef ecosystem monitoring efforts across the U.S. Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. NOAA and partners used consistent methodology such as that used by the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program, and leveraged expertise from across the region. We collected comprehensive, high-quality data that can be used to inform ecological and management decisions about our vital coral reef ecosystems. 

These publications assessed:

  • Current status and trends of coral reef communities
  • Habitat use of reef-associated species
  • Ecosystem responses to human-driven stressors and natural disasters
  • How these data can inform fisheries management actions

The issue highlighted notable advances in the field, including expanding our coral reef visual surveys to new depths to include mesophotic reefs. We also extended the application of these data to assess an additional species—spiny lobster—in the U.S. Caribbean. In addition, multiple publications use visual census data in new ways such as:

  • Calibrating other data sources
  • Compiling ecosystem status reports
  • Informing where coral restoration will be the most effective—a major priority for reef conservation
Photo of a diver collecting data while swimming over a large boulder coral on a coral reef. Text, "Advances in Ecosystem-scale Coral Reef Visual Surveys"
The Bulletin of Marine Science released a special issue of its scientific journal, Advances in Ecosystem-Scale Coral Reef Visual Surveys. Credit: Bulletin of Marine Science


The lead of three guest editors for this special issue was Dr. Laura Jay Grove of NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center.

“In the guest editor role, I had the privilege of working with wonderful colleagues to publish this impressive and timely body of science,” said Grove. “Coral reef ecosystems are at the edge of a conservation precipice. This special issue showcases the importance of well-designed, large-scale visual survey data to inform a variety of coral reef management efforts.”

The applications extend beyond enhancing how we conduct scientific research and monitoring of coral reef ecosystems in the Atlantic and Caribbean. The insights gained through this research could be applied to other coral reef jurisdictions looking to implement ecosystem-scale surveys. These advances are highly relevant and timely as coral reefs continue to decline worldwide. 

Much of this work was funded by NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program and the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program.

Strides in Coral Reef Science 

This special issue broadly tackled known issues to coral reefs. It examined how to best use large-scale visual census datasets to answer regionally relevant questions, including how water quality and extreme weather events affect reef health and fish assemblages. Understanding how coral reefs are responding to stressors can help inform decisions to aid in their conservation and recovery.

In one of the publications, the authors built statistical models to evaluate how environmental and human factors correlated with the frequency of dark spot disease. This disease affects the coral Siderastrea siderea along the Florida Reef TractThey confirmed that coastal water quality and human activities were related to coral disease occurrence.

Another publication examined the effects of natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Irma and Maria, on U.S. Caribbean reef fish. The authors developed a method to use the mismatched datasets available—a common issue in coral reef science—to show a significant disturbance impact in St. Croix. The data indicated the storms there affected the densities of 20 different reef fish species. 

Infographic titled, Advances in Ecosystem-Scale Coral Reef Visual Surveys, with a map of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, and icons for coral, reef fish, and spiny lobster. Logos for NOAA and Bulletin of Marine Science
This infographic summarizes the publications in the Bulletin of Marine Science special issue, Advances in Ecosystem-Scale Coral Reef Visual Surveys. The issue includes 4 studies in Florida, 6 studies in the Caribbean, 2 studies on corals, 7 studies on reef fish, and 1 study on spiny lobster. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Data to Support Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management

Ecosystem-based fisheries management takes into account the entire ecosystem rather than looking at a single species in isolation. Publications in this special issue evaluated how the distribution and status of different groups of fish were affected by factors including:


  • Coral reef condition
  • Reef depth
  • Habitat type
  • Urbanization
  • Fishing intensity
  • Protective closed areas 

One publication focused on identifying factors that influence the distribution of herbivorous fish—those that eat algae—in the Florida Keys. These grazers have the important ecological role of controlling algal growth on reefs, creating space for corals to grow. Understanding the distribution of these fish along the reef tract can aid in management decisions about both herbivorous fish and coral reef restoration efforts.

Another publication examined which seascape factors influence the distribution of fish across the entire expansive reef shelf—shallow water to deeper mesophotic reefs— in the U.S. Virgin Islands for the first time. The team surveyed fish across different trophic groups, from herbivores to carnivores. Understanding how these fish groups change across the complete reef shelf seascape can help us better understand how ecosystems function and identify areas of resilience and vulnerability.

The special issue included two ecosystem-scale evaluation publications. The first used an innovative, holistic ecosystem evaluation approach to compare recent monitoring data to historic baseline conditions in four U.S. Atlantic coral reef regions. It used multiple coral condition indicators. This evaluation showed a continuation in long-term declines in coral condition throughout these regions except for in the more remote and generally deeper Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.

The second ecosystem-scale evaluation was of reef fish community status across a spatial gradient of human urbanization, exploitation, and fishery protection in Florida. Evaluating different groups of fish, the authors identified habitat quality issues in the most urbanized region, southeast Florida. They also identified pervasive fishing issues throughout the ecosystem, including the remote Dry Tortugas region.

Advancing Stock Assessments

Stock assessments are a traditional way to measure the status of populations and to provide scientific advice to sustainably manage U.S. fisheries. They rely on the best data available including fishery-dependent data (fishery landings) and fishery-independent data such as the visual surveys highlighted in this special issue.

A new visual survey monitoring effort was established by the National Park Service for Caribbean spiny lobster, one of the most important fisheries in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Caribbean spiny lobsters have been notoriously difficult to survey in the past. This methodology could easily be expanded beyond the protected national parks to the entire U.S. Caribbean. This would provide regional fishery managers with much-needed data to support stock assessments and inform fisheries management decisions. 

For reef fish, one publication described how a fishery-independent visual survey was recently considered as a new data source for use in the stock assessment process in the U.S. Caribbean. Recent improvements to the Reef Fish Visual Census survey collected by NOAA’s National Coral Reef Monitoring Program resulted in accurate and cost-effective abundance estimates for species with poor-quality or little data, such as queen triggerfish. This will better inform stock assessments in this region.

In another publication, the Reef Fish Visual Census survey was expanded to deeper waters (greater than 30 to 50 meters) in the U.S. Caribbean for the first time. This expansion allowed scientists to survey coral reef fish on more than double the reef habitat than before. It provides a more complete picture and a critical three-year dataset for fisheries management applications.

A final publication provided a comprehensive review of how visual surveys of coral reef fishes have been used for many years in the state of Florida. The Reef Fish Visual Census survey’s robust sampling methods, broad spatial coverage, and time series of data stretch back to 2003. They have been critically important to support diverse and effective management actions including stock assessments and marine protected areas.


Dive into these publications in the Bulletin of Marine Science: Advances in Ecosystem-Scale Coral Reef Visual Surveys

Last updated by Southeast Fisheries Science Center on July 01, 2024