Restoration of herbivory on Caribbean coral reefs: are fishes, urchins, or crabs the solution?

Mark J. Butler*, Alain Duran, Colette J. Feehan, Alastair R. Harborne, Alwin Hykema, Joshua T. Patterson, William C. Sharp, Angelo Jason Spadaro, Tom Wijers, Stacey M. Williams

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


That coral reefs are in decline worldwide, particularly in the Caribbean, will come as no surprise. This decades-long decline has reached a potential tipping point as the weight of the effects of climate change have come decidedly to bear on the planet’s most diverse marine ecosystem. Whether coral reefs can persist without restorative intervention is debatable, which has prompted a surge in coral reef restoration projects focusing primarily on the cultivation and transplantation of coral fragments onto degraded reefs. But that widespread approach does little to address the underlying causes of coral loss, one of which is the proliferation of macroalgae that are deleterious to corals. An emerging solution to this problem is the enhancement of herbivory on coral reefs through improved management of herbivores, artificial enhancement of herbivore settlement, or their mariculture and subsequent stocking. This review explores the nuances of the biology of well-studied Caribbean coral reef herbivores (fishes, sea urchins, and crabs) as it relates to their mariculture and investigates the promise of herbivore stocking onto coral reefs as a restoration strategy. Fish, urchin, and crab herbivores differ appreciably in life histories, which confers advantages and disadvantages with respect to their mariculture and effectiveness as grazers. Mariculture of herbivorous marine fish for reef restoration is essentially non-existent so the reestablishment of grazing fish abundance on coral reefs focuses primarily on their protection through fishery regulations, but only at a few locations in the Caribbean. Mariculture of herbivorous urchins and crabs for restoration purposes is in its infancy, but promising especially for crabs whose larval rearing is less difficult. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the mariculture of either taxon is “scaling-up” from research settings to large-scale mariculture needed for stocking. Numerous studies extol the benefits of functional redundancy and complementarity for coral reef ecosystem stability, but whether this principal applies to the restoration of grazing function is untested. We identify gaps in our knowledge of best practices for the restoration of grazing function on coral reefs and conclude with some practical guidance on the establishment of targets for macroalgal reduction, along with strategic advice on grazer stocking in a given reef habitat.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1329028
JournalFrontiers in Marine Science
Publication statusPublished - 2024


  • Caribbean
  • coral reef
  • grazer
  • herbivore
  • restoration


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