The health of the world’s coral reefs, long jeopardized by the impacts of warming oceans and bleaching events, is now confronting an additional, less-known danger. Recent research highlights a new environmental challenge in the form of peyssonnelid algal crusts (PACs), which pose a significant threat to these vital marine ecosystems.
A recent study in “Cell,” a leading biological journal, brings to light the alarming spread of PACs, particularly in the Caribbean region. Researchers Peter Edmunds, Thom Schils, and Bryan Wilson have provided an in-depth analysis of these algal crusts, particularly in the shallow waters off St. John, USVI. Their study, based on data up to 2019, indicates that nearly two-thirds of the seabed in this region is covered with PACs.
The deceptive simplicity of PACs has allowed them to avoid detection and proper classification for years. These crusts are often mistaken for other seaweed types due to their appearance, leading to misclassification and underestimation of their prevalence.
The research team points out that while PACs are naturally occurring in tropical reefs, their recent proliferation is causing ecological imbalances. They are capable of overgrowing live coral and monopolizing spaces cleared by natural disturbances, such as hurricanes. This dominance prevents the settlement of coral larvae, hindering the growth and regeneration of coral reefs.
Furthermore, PACs seem to be resilient to ocean acidification, an advantage that further threatens coral polyps. Although they provide sustenance for a certain type of sea urchin, the decline of Diadema antillarum populations in Caribbean waters has led to unchecked PAC expansion.
The study warns of a growing crisis, as PACs capitalize on the ecological vulnerabilities created by decades of reef degradation. The researchers stress the need for immediate and comprehensive studies on PACs, starting with improved methods for accurate identification. The survival of coral reefs, both in the Caribbean and globally, might very well depend on these efforts.