The changes in temperature and associated bleaching are resulting in a different mix of species on the reef. This will impact reefs in the long term.
Loss of species
Fish, whales, dolphins, sharks, rays and the many other organisms found in reefs rely on the complexity of the ecosystem for survival. Some fish rely on the colour of the corals for camoflauge and the structure of the coral for hiding. Many organisms are unable to carry out normal functions and processes as a result of the increased ocean acidification associated with climate change. Shellfish are less able to create their shells due to increased pH. Slow growing corals will take 100-200 years to recover, meaning that the reef will not exist in the form that we have known it in the past.
Dispersal of spawn
Ocean warming impacts on the dispersal or coral spawn (eggs). Increased ocean temperatures result in a decline in the dispersal distance of coral spawn from the origin (parent coral) to the destination site. This change in dispersal patterns can impact on species' distribution, abundance or corals in particular areas and genetic diversity across reefs. Changes to dispersal patterns can also impact on the connectivity (interconnections) between different areas of the reef by limiting the areas of reef that particular coral species are located.
Poleward shift of species
Ocean warming can also result in a poleward shift of species from tropical zones to more temperate zones. Warmer waters are found further from the tropics and species are able to take advantage by increasing their range.
In Western Australia, a species of wrasse - cheorodon rebuscens has started to shift its range with displacement of recruits south of its usual habitat. There is evidence of high recruitment at the temperate edge and no recruitment at the tropical edge. The range shift provides limited expansion opportunities, reducing resilience of the species.
Irukandji are migrating further south on the Great Barrier Reef as a result of warmer waters and are also having longer seasons in other areas. There have been anecdotal reports of increases in reports of stinging and hospitalisations on islands within the Great Barrier Reef (e.g Fitzroy Island) and snorkellers are being strongly advised to wear stinger suits outside of usual peak Irukandji seasons. Irukandji and associated stingings have also been reported on western side of the southern tip of Frazer Island where they haven't previously been found.
Following bleaching events or even natural disasters, corals can become overgrown with algae, making it difficult for coral recruits to settle and grow. The mix species on a reef can impact on how resilient that particular reefs is. For example in Moorea in French Polynesia experienced high coral mortality in the 1980s. Recovery of the reef was enabled in part as a result of grazing fish such as parrot fish removing some of the algae in the process of eating corals. In this way the biodiversity of the reef contributed to high levels of resilience on the reef in comparison to some other reefs globally. The scale of the bleaching on GBR make it unlikely that these types of natural processes will have much of an impact on recovery.
Below: A parrot fish on the outer reef, 2015.
Deputy Principal at a Sydney high school. Coordinating author of the new Geoactive book series.