Changes in disturbance regimes due to climate change are increasingly challenging the capacity of ecosystems to absorb recurrent shocks and reassemble afterwards, escalating the risk of widespread ecological collapse of current ecosystems and the emergence of novel assemblages1,2,3. In marine systems, the production of larvae and recruitment of functionally important species are fundamental processes for rebuilding depleted adult populations, maintaining resilience and avoiding regime shifts in the face of rising environmental pressures4,5. Here we document a regional-scale shift in stock–recruitment relationships of corals along the Great Barrier Reef—the world’s largest coral reef system—following unprecedented back-to-back mass bleaching events caused by global warming. As a consequence of mass mortality of adult brood stock in 2016 and 2017 owing to heat stress6, the amount of larval recruitment declined in 2018 by 89% compared to historical levels. For the first time, brooding pocilloporids replaced spawning acroporids as the dominant taxon in the depleted recruitment pool. The collapse in stock–recruitment relationships indicates that the low resistance of adult brood stocks to repeated episodes of coral bleaching is inexorably tied to an impaired capacity for recovery, which highlights the multifaceted processes that underlie the global decline of coral reefs. The extent to which the Great Barrier Reef will be able to recover from the collapse in stock–recruitment relationships remains uncertain, given the projected increased frequency of extreme climate events over the next two decades7.
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Source data on reef locations, adult coral abundance, recruit densities and coral reproductive condition before and after bleaching are available online at the Tropical Data Hub (https://tropicaldatahub.org/ with DOI: 10.25903/5c81fc323d129).
Computer code for statistical analyses is available from the corresponding author on request.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
We acknowledge support from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence Program (CE140100020). We thank the many dozens of student volunteers and technicians who assisted with this research over three decades.
Nature thanks James Guest, Peter Sale and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.