Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Hawaii
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Nalley, EM, LJ Tuttle, AL Barkman, EE Conklin, DM Wulstein, M Schmidbauer, and MJ Donahue. 2023. A systematic review and meta-analysis of the direct effects of nutrients on corals. Science of the Total Environment. 856(1): 159093.


Chronic exposure of coral reefs to elevated nutrient conditions can modify the performance of the coral holobiont and shift the competitive interactions of reef organisms. Many studies have now quantified the links between nutrients and coral performance, but few have translated these studies to directly address coastal water quality standards. To address this management need, we conducted a systematic review of peer-reviewed studies, public reports, and gray literature that examined the impacts of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN: nitrate, nitrite, and ammonium) and dissolved inorganic phosphorus (DIP: phosphate) on scleractinian corals. The systematic review resulted in 47 studies with comparable data on coral holobiont responses to nutrients: symbiont density, chlorophyll a (chl-a) concentration, photosynthesis, photosynthetic efficiency, growth, calcification, adult survival, juvenile survival, and fertilization. Mixed-effects meta-regression meta-analyses were used to determine the magnitude of the positive or negative effects of DIN and DIP on coral responses. Zooxanthellae density (DIN & DIP), chl-a concentration (DIN), photosynthetic rate (DIN), and growth (DIP) all exhibited positive responses to nutrient addition; maximum quantum yield (DIP), growth (DIN), larval survival (DIN), and fertilization (DIN) exhibited negative responses. In lieu of developing specific thresholds for the management of nutrients as a stressor on coral reefs, we highlight important inflection points in the magnitude and direction of the effects of inorganic nutrients and identify trends among coral responses. The responses of corals to nutrients are complex, warranting conservative guidelines for elevated nutrient concentrations on coral reefs.