Coral reefs are biological formations resulting from constructive processes that produce calcium carbonate and erosive processes that reduce this to sediment. Because important metabolic processes of corals are dependent on light, coral reefs are shallow water phenomena. Coral reefs are important fish habitats as they provide shelter, especially for the juveniles of many species. In shallow, clear water, coral reefs support complexes of small turfing algae capable of rapid growth and turnover. These algae trap organic detritus and provide sites for bacterial growth. These highly productive algal complexes and the associated detritus and microbes are a major source of readily accessible primary and secondary productivity for grazing animals. The calcium carbonate substrate is relatively soft and porous and subject to colonisation by boring organisms. These in turn provide habitats for microorganisms that represent an important protein source for those reef fishes that can excavate the substratum and process the material to extract invertebrates and living plants. The feeding activities of grazing and excavating fishes and the subsequent passage of ingested material through the alimentary tract produce a rain of fine sediment and enriched detrital material. The detritus serves as the primary food source for some of the most abundant groups of grazing fishes. Lastly, the currents in the vicinity of coral reefs form complex eddies and accumulate large volumes of planktonic and small nektonic organisms that serve as a food source for numerous species of plankton feeding reef fishes that are preyed upon by larger pelagic predators.
Understanding reef fish faunas for the purposes of management and conservation requires an appreciation of how these faunas differ between reefs and regions. Reef history, location and environmental influences may all have profound effects on fish assemblages. The GBR has had a distinctive history that in association with its regional location has left its imprint on the fish fauna. The following sections will deal with the location of the GBR with respect to other large reef systems, its history and the geological processes as they relate to the present day fish assemblages and their habitats.
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