HCNSO Student Theses and Dissertations

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Ph.D. Oceanography/Marine Biology

First Advisor

Richard E. Spieler

Second Advisor

David S. Gilliam

Third Advisor

Alasdair J. Edwards

Fourth Advisor

Richard E. Dodge


Coral reefs are being negatively impacted by various causes worldwide, and direct intervention is often warranted following disturbance to restore or replace lost ecosystem structure and function. An experimental coral reef restoration study involving standardized artificial reef modules (ReefballsTM) was conducted in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the towns of Puerto Morelos and Akumal. The purpose was to explore the use of artificial structure for restoration and mitigation applications in a highly diverse and dynamic Caribbean coral reef environment by applying and evaluating the performance of select experimental treatments hypothesized to accelerate development of the associated biota. The first treatment consisted of invertebrate enhancing artificial substrate padding material, which provided structurally complex refuge space for mobile epifaunal/infaunal invertebrates and other benthic organisms. The second treatment consisted of coral transplants, intended to provide additional structural complexity and kick-start development of stony coral populations. The third treatment consisted of settlement plates which were intended to provide data on coral recruitment and survival rates. Multiple hypotheses relating to the interactions between experimental treatments and the resulting macroalgal, non-coral invertebrate, stony coral, and coral reef fish assemblages were examined, and comparisons were made between natural and artificial substrates. In Puerto Morelos there were 40 modules; 10 controls and 10 of each of 3 treatments: substrate pads, coral transplants, and settlement plates. In Akumal there were 12 modules; 6 controls and 3 of each of 2 treatments: substrate pads and settlement plates. Following module deployment, 6 biannual monitoring trips were made over the course of three years to assess the development of the biota, with a final 7th trip made six years post-deployment. Divers conducted non-destructive visual surveys to evaluate total abundance, species richness, size class distribution, and assemblage structure of coral reef fishes. Other monitoring work included coral recruit surveys, mobile epifaunal invertebrate collections from substrate pads, and digital imaging of coral transplants, natural reef reference corals, and benthic quadrat areas. Hurricane Dean compromised the Akumal study site during the first year of the study, but Puerto Morelos was unaffected. There the modules developed biotic assemblages that differed from what was found on the natural reef, and the data suggests that the substrate pads may have had an effect on the development of faunal assemblages. Lobophora variegata macroaglae and Desmapsamma anchorata sponge were the major contributors to benthic community composition, and both had significantly greater coverage on the substrate pads treatment modules. Lobophora grew rapidly and peaked within the first year, while sponges increased steadily throughout the first three years of the study, surpassing the coverage of macroalgae before the end of the second year, much to the detriment of coral transplants and many coral recruits. By the end of the study, over 75% of the transplants were overgrown by D. anchorata, and density of new coral recruits on the Pads treatment modules was lower than the other treatments and controls. Coral recruitment was dominated by Porites astreoides on all treatments and controls, and the number of corals increased steadily throughout the study. The controls had consistently greater numbers of corals than the treatments, as well as lower percent coverage of macroalgae and sponges. Total abundance and species richness of reef fishes was generally unaffected by the treatments. However, at the family and species level, several differences were detected, particularly for the substrate pads treatment and to a lesser extent for the coral transplants treatment. For future restoration or mitigation efforts utilizing similar or identical treatments to artificial substrates, this study suggests that, in the absence of routine maintenance, greater success may be achieved after waiting several years post-deployment for the initial wave of unchecked growth by benthic organisms (i.e., macroalgae and sponges) to reach a balance point before a large investment of resources is devoted to coral transplanting. Further recommendations include routine monthly or quarterly on-site maintenance to enhance transplant survival, as well as a longer monitoring window to assess community development in response to experimental treatments. The results of this study suggest that the experimental treatments did indeed have an effect on the biota, but whether or not the effect was beneficial largely depends upon perspective. The Pads treatment in particular had the greatest effect on both reef fish and benthic community development, however, it was not beneficial for stony coral recruitment. Additional research is needed to fully understand the long-term performance and effects of the padding material on biotic assemblage development for future restoration or mitigation projects.