Effects of sediment exposure on corals: a systematic review of experimental studies


Management actions that address local-scale stressors on coral reefs can rapidly improve water quality and reef ecosystem condition. In response to reef managers who need actionable thresholds for coastal runoff and dredging, we conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of experimental studies that explore the effects of sediment on corals. We identified exposure levels that ‘adversely’ affect corals while accounting for sediment bearing (deposited vs. suspended), coral life-history stage, and species, thus providing empirically based estimates of stressor thresholds on vulnerable coral reefs.


We searched online databases and grey literature to obtain a list of potential studies, assess their eligibility, and critically appraise them for validity and risk of bias. Data were extracted from eligible studies and grouped by sediment bearing and coral response to identify thresholds in terms of the lowest exposure levels that induced an adverse physiological and/or lethal effect. Meta-regression estimated the dose–response relationship between exposure level and the magnitude of a coral’s response, with random-effects structures to estimate the proportion of variance explained by factors such as study and coral species.

Review findings

After critical appraisal of over 15,000 records, our systematic review of corals’ responses to sediment identified 86 studies to be included in meta-analyses (45 studies for deposited sediment and 42 studies for suspended sediment). The lowest sediment exposure levels that caused adverse effects in corals were well below the levels previously described as ‘normal’ on reefs: for deposited sediment, adverse effects occurred as low as 1 mg/cm2/day for larvae (limited settlement rates) and 4.9 mg/cm2/day for adults (tissue mortality); for suspended sediment, adverse effects occurred as low as 10 mg/L for juveniles (reduced growth rates) and 3.2 mg/L for adults (bleaching and tissue mortality). Corals take at least 10 times longer to experience tissue mortality from exposure to suspended sediment than to comparable concentrations of deposited sediment, though physiological changes manifest 10 times faster in response to suspended sediment than to deposited sediment. Threshold estimates derived from continuous response variables (magnitude of adverse effect) largely matched the lowest-observed adverse-effect levels from a summary of studies, or otherwise helped us to identify research gaps that should be addressed to better quantify the dose–response relationship between sediment exposure and coral health.


We compiled a global dataset that spans three oceans, over 140 coral species, decades of research, and a range of field- and lab-based approaches. Our review and meta-analysis inform the no-observed and lowest-observed adverse-effect levels (NOAEL, LOAEL) that are used in management consultations by U.S. federal agencies. In the absence of more location- or species-specific data to inform decisions, our results provide the best available information to protect vulnerable reef-building corals from sediment stress. Based on gaps and limitations identified by our review, we make recommendations to improve future studies and recommend future synthesis to disentangle the potentially synergistic effects of multiple coral-reef stressors.


Sedimentation, Turbidity, Marine management, Bleaching, Mortality, Sublethal physiology, Regulatory processes, Tipping points, LOAEL, NOAEL


Local management action to address coral-reef stressors can improve reef health and mitigate the effects of global climate change. Coastal development and runoff lead to sedimentation, which directly impacts coral recruitment, growth, mortality, and the ecosystem services that coral reefs provide. Decision making for reef resilience in the face of global and local stressors requires information on thresholds for management action. In response to needs identified by reef managers, we plan to conduct a systematic review and meta-analysis that will explore the effects of both deposited and suspended sediment on corals to identify single and interacting stressor thresholds. We will identify levels of sediment exposure (i.e., concentration, duration, and frequency) that cause adverse physical, physiological, behavioral, developmental, and ecological responses in coral and describe geographic and taxonomic patterns in these responses. Our ultimate goal is to provide managers with sediment exposure thresholds that can be expected to cause these responses.


Our systematic review will synthesize available evidence on the effects of suspended and deposited sediment on corals. The research questions were formulated with an advisory team to support management decisions concerning local reef stressors in waters under U.S. federal jurisdiction. While the advisory team is most concerned with reefs adjacent to U.S. Pacific Islands, our review will include studies that examine reef-building coral species around the world. We will search online databases and grey literature to obtain a list of potential studies, assess their relevance, and critically appraise them for validity and risk of bias. Provided enough data can be extracted from relevant experimental studies, we will conduct meta-analyses that examine changes in coral health and survival in response to suspended and/or deposited sediment, with the goal to define sediment thresholds for reef managers. If enough data are available from within the U.S. Pacific Islands, we will construct region-, site-, and/or species-specific thresholds to improve local management.