A number of factors have recently caused mass coral mortality events in all of the world's tropical oceans. However, little is known about the timing, rate or spatial variability of the loss of reef-building corals, especially in the Indo-Pacific, which contains 75% of the world's coral reefs.
We compiled and analyzed a coral cover database of 6001 quantitative surveys of 2667 Indo-Pacific coral reefs performed between 1968 and 2004. Surveys conducted during 2003 indicated that coral cover averaged only 22.1% (95% CI: 20.7, 23.4) and just 7 of 390 reefs surveyed that year had coral cover >60%. Estimated yearly coral cover loss based on annually pooled survey data was approximately 1% over the last twenty years and 2% between 1997 and 2003 (or 3,168 km2 per year). The annual loss based on repeated measures regression analysis of a subset of reefs that were monitored for multiple years from 1997 to 2004 was 0.72 % (n = 476 reefs, 95% CI: 0.36, 1.08).
The rate and extent of coral loss in the Indo-Pacific are greater than expected. Coral cover was also surprisingly uniform among subregions and declined decades earlier than previously assumed, even on some of the Pacific's most intensely managed reefs. These results have significant implications for policy makers and resource managers as they search for successful models to reverse coral loss.