Understanding the spatial and temporal distribution of coral assemblages and the processes structuring those patterns is fundamental to managing reef assemblages. Cross-shelf marine systems exhibit pronounced and persistent gradients in environmental conditions; however, these gradients are not always reliable predictors of coral distribution or the degree of stress that corals are experiencing. This study used information from government, industry and scientific datasets spanning 1980–2017, to explore temporal trends in coral cover in the geographically complex system of the Dampier Archipelago, northwest Australia. Coral composition at 15 sites surveyed in 2017 was also modelled against environmental and spatial variables (including turbidity, degree heat weeks, wave exposure, and distance to land/mainland/isobath) to assess their relative importance in structuring coral assemblages. High spatial and temporal heterogeneity was observed in coral cover and recovery trajectories, with reefs located an intermediate distance from the shore maintaining high cover over the past 20 years. The abundance of some prominent genera in 2017 (Acropora
, and Turbinaria
spp.) decreased with the distance from the mainland, suggesting that inshore processes play an important role in dictating the distribution of these genera. The atypical distributions of these key reef-building corals and spatial heterogeneity of historical recovery trajectories highlight the risks in making assumptions regarding cross-shelf patterns in geographically complex systems.
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