Abstract

Abstract Coral reef ecosystems globally are under threat, leading to declining coral cover and macroalgal proliferation. Manually removing macroalgae (i.e. ‘sea‐weeding’) may promote local‐scale coral recovery by reducing a biological barrier, though the impact of removal on community composition of benthic reef organisms has not been quantified. In this three‐year study (2018–2021), fleshy macroalgae (predominantly Sargassum spp.) were periodically removed from 25 m2 experimental plots on two inshore fringing reefs of Yunbenun (Magnetic Island) in the central Great Barrier Reef. By the end of the study, coral cover in removal plots (n = 12 plots) assessed through in‐field transects increased by at least 47% (2019 mean: 25.5%, 2021 mean: 37.4%), and macroalgal cover decreased by more than half. In contrast, in control plots (n = 12 plots), there was no change in macroalgal cover while coral cover remained stable (2019 mean: 16.4%, 2021 mean: 13.6%). Changes in benthic cover were supported by photoquadrat data, with Bayesian probability modelling indicating a 100% likelihood that coral cover more than doubled in removal plots over the study period, compared to only a 29% chance of increased coral cover in control plots. Synthesis and applications. Manual macroalgal removal can provide rapid benefits and enhance inshore coral reef recovery. Through involvement of community groups and citizen scientists, larger scale removal of macroalgae is a low‐tech, high‐impact, and achievable method for local reef management.

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