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Coral reefs are in dramatic global decline, with seaweeds commonly replacing corals. It is unclear, however, whether seaweeds harm corals directly or colonize opportunistically following their decline and then suppress coral recruitment. In the Caribbean and tropical Pacific, we show that, when protected from herbivores, ~40 to 70% of common seaweeds cause bleaching and death of coral tissue when in direct contact. For seaweeds that harmed coral tissues, their lipid-soluble extracts also produced rapid bleaching. Coral bleaching and mortality was limited to areas of direct contact with seaweeds or their extracts. These patterns suggest that allelopathic seaweed-coral interactions can be important on reefs lacking herbivore control of seaweeds, and that these interactions involve lipid-soluble metabolites transferred via direct contact. Seaweeds were rapidly consumed when placed on a Pacific reef protected from fishing but were left intact or consumed at slower rates on an adjacent fished reef, indicating that herbivory will suppress seaweeds and lower frequency of allelopathic damage to corals if reefs retain intact food webs. With continued removal of herbivores from coral reefs, seaweeds are becoming more common. This occurrence will lead to increasing frequency of seaweed-coral contacts, increasing allelopathic suppression of remaining corals, and continuing decline of reef corals.