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Coral bleaching in turbid waters of north-western Australia

A. Lafratta A E, J. Fromont B C, P. Speare A C and C. H. L. Schönberg A B C D F

A Australian Institute of Marine Science, 39 Fairway, Crawley, WA 6009, Australia.
B Department of Aquatic Zoology, Western Australian Museum, Locked Bag 49, Welshpool DC, WA 6986, Australia.
C Western Australian Marine Science Institution, Underwood Avenue corner Brockway Road, Floreat, WA 6014, Australia.
D Oceans Institute at The University of Western Australia, 39 Fairway, Crawley, WA 6009, Australia.
E Present address: School of Natural Sciences, Edith Cowan University, 270 Joondalup Drive, WA 6027, Australia.
F Corresponding author. Email: christine.schoenberg@uwa.edu.au

Marine and Freshwater Research - http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/MF15314
Submitted: 11 August 2015  Accepted: 30 October 2015   Published online: 5 February 2016

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We report severe bleaching in a turbid water coral community in north-western Australia. Towed still imagery was used for a benthic survey near Onslow in March 2013 to assess thermal stress in hard and soft corals, finding 51–68% of all corals fully bleached in 10–15-m water depth. Tabulate or foliaceous Turbinaria was the locally most abundant hard coral (46%), followed by massives such as faviids and poritids (25%) and encrusting coral (12%), thus over 80% of the local corals could be considered to be bleaching resistant. All coral groups were bleached in similar proportions (massive hard corals 51% < soft corals 60% < encrusting hard corals 62% < Turbinaria 62% < ‘others’ 68%). NOAA data and environmental assessments suggest previous recurrent thermal stress throughout the last 10 years in the study area. On the basis of these records this stress apparently changed the community structure from bleaching vulnerable species such as Acropora, leaving more tolerant species, and reduced coral cover. We could see no evidence for adaptation or acclimation of corals in this area. Towed still imagery was found to be a suitable means for rapid and large-scale bleaching studies in shallow, turbid areas where diving can be difficult or impossible.

Additional keywords: morphology, Pilbara, thermal bleaching, Turbinaria, underwater imagery


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