Researchers at Oregon State University for the first time have confirmed some of the mechanisms by which overfishing and nitrate pollution can help destroy coral reefs – it appears they allow an overgrowth of algae that can bring with it unwanted pathogens, choke off oxygen and disrupt helpful bacteria.
There are thousands of species of algae, and coral reefs have evolved with them in a relationship that often benefits the entire tropical marine ecosystem. When in balance, some algae grow on the reefs, providing food to both small and large fish that nibble at the algal growth. But the algal growth is normally limited by the availability of certain nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, and some large fish such as parrot fish help eat substantial amounts of algae and keep it under control.
All of those processes can be disrupted when algal growth is significantly increased by the nutrients and pollution from coastal wastewater, and overfishing reduces algae consumption at the same time. “This shows that some human actions, such as terrestrial pollution or overfishing, can affect everything in marine ecosystems right down to the microbes found on corals,” Vega-Thurber said. “We’ve suspected before that increased algal growth can bring new diseases to corals, and now for the first time have demonstrated in experiments these shifts in microbial communities.”