Long-term variation in the population density of gorgonians in St. John, US Virgin Islands

The decline in abundance of scleractinian corals over the past three decades in the Caribbean has raised the possibility that other important benthic taxa, such as octocorals, are also changing in abundance. We used photoquadrats taken over 20 yr from reefs (7-9 m depth) at six sites on the south coast of St. John, US Virgin Islands, to test the hypothesis that octocorals have changed in abundance since 1992. Octocorals were counted in 0.25 m2 photoquadrats at 2- to 3-yr intervals and identified to genus or family. Overall, there was variation over time in population density of octocorals (pooled among taxa, and also separately for Antillogorgia spp., Gorgonia spp., and plexaurids) at each site, and densities remained unchanged or increased over 20 yr; where increases in density occurred, the effects were accentuated after 2002. The local-scale analysis was expanded to the Caribbean (including the Florida Keys) by compiling data for octocoral densities from 31 studies for reefs at ?25 m depth between 1968 and 2013. At this scale, analyses were limited by the paucity of historical data, and despite a weak trend of higher octocoral densities in recent decades, statistically, there was no change in octocoral abundance over time. Together with data from the whole Caribbean, the present analysis suggests that octocorals have not experienced a decadal-scale decline in population density, which has occurred for many scleractinian corals.