Managing for Disturbance

Hurricanes. Photo © NOAA
coral bed

Incident response plans help to mobilize action, readily document the event, and better identify sites which are likely to display characteristics of resistance and resilience. Photo © Kee Alfian/Marine Photobank

Coral reefs are vulnerable to a range of disturbances that can have rapid onset and severe impacts, including vessel groundings, outbreaks of disease and coral predatorstropical storms, and coral bleaching events. While these incidents vary in their spatial scale and the extent to which human activities are their cause, they can all require some level of response by coral reef managers.

Individual incidents can be inherently unpredictable, yet it is highly likely that managers will have to contend with them at some point. When they do occur, many incidents are visually dramatic, ecologically devastating, and of significant public interest. Coral reef managers will inevitably need to respond to incidents in some way, and being prepared through incident response planning can be crucial for managing both environmental and reputational risk. Incident response plans can give managers the knowledge, tools, and mandate to implement an appropriate response to these risks.

An effective response generally requires an appropriate organizational/policy mandate as well as the necessary operational capacity. Incident response plans can take varied forms, but the most common elements include:

  • Early warning — A system for detecting when conditions are approaching stressful thresholds or detection of the early symptoms of stress is crucial to a timely response. More observers generally increase the likelihood that an incident can be detected early, so strategies for broad participation in early warning programs (such as volunteer programs) can be key to their effectiveness.
  • Response management — Experts or experienced managers need to evaluate observations and reports from the early warning system to determine the need and scale of response. For each type of incident the response plan needs to define how the response will be managed, including response triggers, types of response, incident control system, communication strategy criteria for declaring when an incident response is over, and post-incident monitoring and management.
  • Field response — An effective and efficient field response requires a standard operations procedure, which includes a mobilization protocol, team composition, equipment requirements, assessment methods, reporting procedures, and communications protocols.
  • Management actions — Management strategies in response to an incident will vary depending on the type and severity of the event. Implementation of management actions will be determined on a case-by-case basis, and factors such as extent and cause of the incident, feasibility of mitigation efforts, socioeconomic value of the reef, presence of rare or endangered species, and the timing of the event will all be important in designing the responsive management actions.
  • Follow-up monitoring — This is an important component of incident response, as it provides increased understanding of the long-term impacts to reefs from events and allows managers to evaluate the effectiveness of response actions.

The following two sections provide guidance on and resources for the design and implementation of incident response plans for two of the most significant and increasingly common types of incident:

The final section provides guidance on managing for ocean acidification.

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