Species richness and community structure on a high latitude reef: Implications for conservation and management
In spite of the wealth of research on the Great Barrier Reef, few detailed biodiversity assessments of its inshore coral communities have been conducted. Effective conservation and management of marine ecosystems begins with fine-scale biophysical assessments focused on diversity and the architectural species that build the structural framework of the reef. In this study, we investigate key coral diversity and environmental attributes of an inshore reef system surrounding the Keppel Bay Islands near Rockhampton in Central Queensland, Australia, and assess their implications for conservation and management. The Keppels has much higher coral diversity than previously found. The average species richness for the 19 study sites was ~40 with representatives from 68% of the ~244 species previously described for the southern Great Barrier Reef. Using scleractinian coral species richness, taxonomic distinctiveness and coral cover as the main criteria, we found that five out of 19 sites had particularly high conservation value. A further site was also considered to be of relatively high value. Corals at this site were taxonomically distinct from the others (representatives of two families were found here but not at other sites) and a wide range of functionally diverse taxa were present. This site was associated with more stressful conditions such as high temperatures and turbidity. Highly diverse coral communities or biodiversity ‘hotspots’ and taxonomically distinct reefs may act as insurance policies for climatic disturbance, much like Noah’s Arks for reefs. While improving water quality and limiting anthropogenic impacts are clearly important management initiatives to improve the long-term outlook for inshore reefs, identifying, mapping and protecting these coastal ‘refugia’ may be the key for ensuring their regeneration against catastrophic climatic disturbance in the meantime.