The Status of Coral Reefs in Brazil
Beatrice Padovani FERREIRA1; Mauro MAIDA1; Clóvis B.CASTRO2; Débora O. PIRES2; Tâmara M.
D'AMICO1; Ana P.L. PRATES3 and Danilo MARX4.
1Department of Oceanography, Federal University of Pernambuco, 29060-900, Recife, PE, Brazil.
2National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, 20940-040, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil.
3Secretary of Biodiversity and Forests, Ministry of Environment, 70.068-900, Brasília, DF, Brazil.
4Projeto Recifes Costeiros, Cepene-Ibama, Tamandaré, PE, Brazil.
1 Corresponding author: B. P. FERREIRA.
FAX +55 81 21268225, email@example.com.
Abstract Coral reefs in Brazil are distributed along
3,000 km of the Brazilian Northeastern coast, and
represent the only coral reef ecosystem in the South
Atlantic. In 2002, the Brazilian Ministry of Environment
funded a pilot project to assess the status of conservation
of Brazilian reefs using the global methods of Reef
Check. Six representative regions of Brazilian reefs,
between latitudes 3° and 18°S, were chosen for the
assessment, including four coastal areas, one oceanic
island and one atoll. The selected reefs were located
inside the boundaries of marine protected areas of the
two main types established in Brazil: fully protected and
sustainable use, where extraction is allowed. Intensity of
use in this last category was variable, largely depending
on local conditions such as human population densities
and management regimes. From March 2002 to April
2003, Reef Check surveys were conducted in several
sites within this regions. A geographic information
system was built using LANDSAT imagery. Reef Check
methods were adapted to fit local requirements while
permitting collection of the same basic data. Hard coral
cover varied between 5 to 35%. Higher cover was found
at Abrolhos reefs. Specific hard coral composition varied
between regions, with lower diversity of corals registered
at northern reefs. Indicator species of fish, including
Lutjanids, Scarids, Serranids and ornamental species
were significantly less abundant in areas were fishing and
collecting were allowed. The same pattern was observed
for commercially exploited species of lobster and
octopus. Larger species of groupers were generally
absent of all areas with very few exceptions. In the
summer of 2003 a synchronized bleaching event was
recorded. This is the first large scale event registered and
shows the importance of large scale monitoring in Brazil.
Key-words Brazil, Coral Reef Monitoring, MPAs, Reef
Coral reefs in Brazil are distributed along 3,000 km of
the Brazilian Northeastern coast, and represent the only
coral reef ecosystem in the South Atlantic. Brazilian
shallow coral reefs contain 20 species of scleractinian
corals, with 15 hermatypic zooxanthellate species and 5
azooxanthellate ahermatypic species (Castro and Pires,
2001, unpublished data). Five of the 15 hermatypic
species are endemic to Brazilian waters. Of those, one
species has an even more restricted distribution, only
occurring on the reefs of Bahia State. The endemism is
extended at the genus level, and includes relict forms
only remotely related to recent Caribbean species
(Laborel,1970; Leão, 1983). The reef fish fauna, by
contrast, is characterized by a high endemism of about 18
to 20% (Floeter and Gasparini, 2000) but differences
between the Caribbean and the Brazilian provinces are at
the species or subspecies level, with no genus restricted
to the south-western Atlantic (Joyeux et al. 2001).
The reefs are mostly coastal and local populations
depend largely on reef resources. In the northeast, over
18 million people live along the coast, one of the most
densely occupied regions in the country (Moraes, 1999).
Overall, the human related activities that affect the
Brazilian reefs are the same that threaten most coral reefs
around the world, such as land use practices that increase
sedimentation, domestic and agricultural pollution,
overexploitation of reef resources, and uncontrolled
tourism (Maida and Ferreira 1997). Artisanal fisheries
are a very important activity, both socially, economically
and culturally, and also one of the bigger impacts. The
tourism industry is growing every year, with numerous
development projects for the region under way,
representing in this scenario both a threat and an
In 2002, with a grant from the Ministry of
Environment, we started a pilot project with the objective
of gathering information for the establishment of a
National Monitoring Programme in Brazil. The Reef
Check methodology was selected for the assessments
because of its volunteer, community-based nature, which
allows for the involvement and participation of
government staff, dive operators and NGOs. The idea
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Proceedings of 10th International Coral Reef Symposium, 1011-1015 (2006)
was to test the Reef Check methodology for applicability
and acceptance, to get an overall picture of the status of
the reefs and to establish a national programme tailored
to allow broad participation in order to achieve both
monitoring and educational purposes. We here present
our first results.
Material and Methods
Four reef formations were selected in representative
locations distributed along the area of occurrence of coral
reefs (Figure 1). The criteria we used for selection was
representativeness under the broad distribution of reefs in
Brazil, feasibility of access under good conditions,
location inside the boundaries of marine protected areas
and the presence of tourism. Marine Protected Areas
were of the two main types established in Brazil: fully
protected; and sustainable use, where extraction is
allowed (including fisheries). The advantage of being
inside a MPA was the existence of a management regime
and government personnel that could be trained and
involved in the monitoring.
Figure 1: Map showing the distribution of reefs in Brazil
and the areas selected for the monitoring
The Maracajaú reef formation, located in the northern
Touros-Natal area, and the Coral Coast MPA reef
formation, located in the Pirangi-Maceió area are
multiple use MPAs, while Fernando de Noronha, an
Archipelago in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the Abrolhos
formation, located in the south, are Marine Parks, where
only tourism and scientific activities are allowed. During
the expeditions, we had the chance to survey another two
areas, Corumbau Extrativist Reserve in South Bahia and
Atol das Rocas Biological Reserve in the north.
Most selected reefs are popular tourist destinations,
with the exception of Atol das Rocas where only research
activities are allowed and Corumbau, due to remote
From March 2002 to April 2003 Reef Check surveys
were conducted along 192 transects, distributed in
several areas and sites within these regions. In each area,
survey sites were selected after discussion with local
researchers and rangers. A geographic information
system was build using LANDSAT imagery.
Reef Check methods were adapted so to fit local
requirements while permitting collection of the same
basic data. New categories of indicators were added to
the standard, pre-existing Reef Check categories:
-for fishes: the nassau grouper, that does not occur in the
South Atlantic, was replaced by the goliath grouper
Epinephelus itajara, the first marine fish species to be
declared as threatened and to be fully protected in Brazil.
Ornamental fish was added as a category, including
several species depending on the region.
-for invertebrates: other two species of sea urchins were
added (Echinometra lucunter and Tripneustes sp.) and
their abundance estimated in numbers per transect or in
numbers per square meter
-for substrate, calcareous algae were included as a
category, as they are considered an important reef builder
in Brazil (Kikuchi e Leão, 1997; Figueiredo, 1997). In
addition, coral species were recorded individually and
not as a single group.
Data were analyzed using simple parametric and non-
parametric tests to compare abundance of organism
between regions. Significance levels were set at p<0.05.
Results and Discussion
Hard coral cover varied between 5 to 35%. Higher
cover was found at Parcel dos Abrolhos (PA). High
cover was also registered in some restricted sites in
Fernando de Noronha (FN) (Figure 2). Specific hard
coral composition varied between regions, with lower
diversity of corals registered at northern reefs. In Parcel
dos Abrolhos, where a higher diversity of coral species
was observed, no single species was found to be
dominant, while in archipelago dos Abrolhos (AA) the
dominant species was the endemic Mussismilia
brasiliensis. In Fernando de Noronha, where surveys
were conducted at depth contours of 12 meters,
Montastraea cavernosa was the dominant species,
present in 75% of the observations. Pires et al (1992)
also reported a high cover of M. cavernosa in the area.
Many large dead colonies were observed during our
survey, that indicates a possible coral cover decrease in
the last years; also suggested by Castro and Pires (2001).
In the APA Costa dos Corais, Montastraea cavernosa
was dominant in the deeper contours surveyed in
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Tamandaré (TA), while Millepora alcicornis was
dominant in the shallows of Maragogi (MJ). In the north
area, the dominant species was Siderastrea stellata both
in Maracajaú (MA) and Atol das Rocas (AR), with more
than 90% of occurrence in both cases.
These results were compared to previous works when
available. For the parcel dos Abrolhos region (PA) Segal
(2003) sampled 3 sites, with 5 intercept line transects
with 250 points per station. Their estimated coral cover
of scleractinians and milleporids (=RC hard coral) was of
31.91%, very close to the present results of 32.8%
Figure 2: Mean percent coral cover estimated by the
percentage of occurrence of the category hard coral in
each 40 point line transect. AR-Atol das Rocas; FN-
Fernando de Noronha; MJ- Maracajaú; TA- Tamandaré;
MA- Maragogi; IT- Itacolomis; PP- Parcel das Paredes;
AA- Arquipélago dos Abrolhos; PA- Parcel dos
Abrolhos.Fishes and Invertebrates
Indicator species of fish, including lutjanids, scarids,
serranids and ornamental species were significantly less
abundant in the sustainable use MPAs, were fishing and
collecting were allowed (Figure 3).
Larger species of groupers were generally absent of all
areas with very few exceptions. In Fernando de
Noronha, the area where individual groupers larger than
30 cm of total length were more abundant, the category
was mainly represented by the coney Cephalopholis
fulva, a small grouper with maximum length is less than
40 cm. The rarity of larger groupers there and in most
places, indicates that the threat level for these large
predators is very high, as pointed out by Myers and
Worm (2002) and Coleman et al. (2000). The goliath
grouper was only observed in Atol das Rocas and in a 3
sq km no take zone within the APA Costa dos Corais,
both places where only research is allowed. In some
places, the absence of large groupers can indicate that the
protection measures have not been sufficient to maintain
populations. In Noronha for instance, fishing is banned
only from the coast to the 50 meter isobath, what is
probably not compatible with the mobility range of larger
individuals, frequently caught outside these boundaries.
For the snappers, higher abundances were observed in
the Parcel dos Abrolhos, mainly represented by Lutjanus
chrysurus, a very important fishing resource in the state
of Bahia. Abrolhos is probably a very important refuge
for these species, since as well as the high abundance,
individuals we observed at all sizes, from large adults to
newly settled recruits taking refuge in the branches of the
fire coral Millepora alcicornis. The high abundance of
M. alcicornis in the area makes Parcel dos Abrolhos an
even more important settlement area for L. chrysurus.
For the other areas, the more abundant species was the
dog snapper Lutjanus jocu.
Parrotfishes were also more abundant inside no-take
areas. Until recently, these fishes were only exploited by
artisanal fisheries. Now, however, the group as well as
acanthurids, has become an important target, with the
start of exportation of deep frozen fish caught by large
nets and traps around reef areas. A change in the
abundance numbers registered in our survey may be
expected in the future.
Haemulids, by contrast, were significantly more
abundant outside no-fishing zones. Because of this
result, the category, mostly represented in the survey by
large schools of juveniles of the genus Haemulon, will
now be recorded in two categories according to genera
(Haemulon or Anisotremus) and size (< and>20cm).
The abundance of ornamental fish varied according to
longitudinal and latitudinal patterns of distribution, and
therefore was not overall significant. Species registered
were Gramma braziliensis, Holocanthus ciliares,
Holocanthus tricolor, Elacathinus figaro, Pomacanthus
paru, Bodianus rufus and Microspathodon chrysurus.
Figure 3: Mean number of indicator species of fish per
transect in areas with and without fishing. Significance
at p<0.05 is indicated by an* (KS).
As for the invertebrates, lobsters and octopus are
intensely fished in Brazil, and were also significantly
more abundant in the no fishing areas, as well as crabs
and shellfish, generally caught in the same reef fishery.
Echinometra lucunter occurred in very high numbers in
some coastal reefs, independently of protection status,
and were not represented in Figure 4.
The abundance of the other organisms, specially the
species collected as curios or for the ornamental trade,
was also driven by longitudinal and latitudinal patterns of
distribution. The giant anemone Condylactis giganteus
was abundant only in the Parcel dos Abrolhos area,
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where up to four individuals were counted in a single
Figure 4: Mean number of harvested invertebrates in
areas with and without fishing. Significance at p<0.05 is
indicated by an* (KS).
In the summer of 2003, a synchronized event of
bleaching was registered during our surveys in
Maracajaú, Rocas atoll and in Tamandaré and Maragogi
in the Coral Coast MPA. Bleaching was also reported by
one of the authors in Abrolhos region. This event was of
smaller proportion in terms of percentage of bleached
colonies than the event in 1998, but quite significant in
comparison with the proportion of colonies registered the
previous year. This was the first large scale event
registered simultaneously in Brazil and shows the
importance of large scale monitoring.
Figure 5: Mean percentage of partially bleached colonies
along transects in sites surveyed in 2002 and 2003.
The selected regions included sites with high percentages
of coral cover, comparable to those observed in other
Atlantic regions (Hodgson and Liebeler, 2002), as well as
sites with very low coral cover. According to Jacques
Laborel (pers. comm.) the coral formations in Brazil
were already very poor in the 1960s, being never higher
than 50% maximum and around 25% in average. Laborel
has recently revisited some sites he surveyed 40 years
ago, along the coast of Pernambuco state, and reported a
perceived reduction in the abundance of corals, that
seems to be the pattern for other regions around the
world (Gardner et al. 2003).
The method was efficient in revealing important
patterns for Brazilian coral reefs. In relation to fishes
and invertebrate species, fishing was the main variable
driving the abundance of indicator species on Brazilian
Due to the country dimensions, the Reef Check
methodology seems to be ideal to serve as the base over
which more detailed survey techniques can be
incorporated to investigate specific questions.
As well as the authors, more than 32 volunteers
participated in the surveys conducted during the present
work, which also had the support of diving operators and
local park rangers. New teams have been formed since,
and the monitoring program has generated an enormous
interest from divers, students, fishers and other potential
volunteers. A first training program which took place in
Itaparica island, Bahia, attracted the interest of over 15
volunteers, and resulted in several police actions to stop
fishing with explosives, a local long lasting problem.
Even without a direct PR effort, the work has been the
object of several articles in Brazilian magazines and
newspapers. The Ministry of Environment has presently
approved a proposal for continuation of these work, and
the establishment of a permanent monitoring network.
Funds were provided by the Biodiversity Project –
PROBIO- of the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry
of Environment and The Brazilian Resarch Council
CNPq to FADE (Research Support Foundation of the
University of Pernambuco). We thank J. Laborel for
sharing his knowledge with us and to all the volunteers
that participated and made this work possible. Thanks to
Gil Strenzel and Thales M. Ushizima who provided great
assistance with the database and maps. We also thank
the support of the Projeto Recifes Costeiros, IRCOS,
CEPENE/IBAMA, PROMAR and the dive operators
Aratur, Atlantis Divers and Maracajau Divers. The
participation and assistance of IBAMA personnel was
invaluable. We thank the support from G Hodgson and
his LA based Reef Check team and of QuikSilver
Australia that made possible our second trip to Noronha
and the first survey in Atol das Rocas aboard the Indies
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