Coral Bleaching

Hurricanes. Photo © NOAA

NOAA's Coral Reef Watch Program uses satellite information and in-situ tools to show where sea surface temperatures are rising. Image courtesy NOAA

Coral bleaching events can cause severe and widespread ecological damage with serious consequences for reef-based communities and industries. While the causes of coral bleaching are beyond the direct influence of local management, reef managers have important roles to play before, during and after bleaching events.

Managers are likely to have a range of responsibilities associated with bleaching events including:

  • predicting and communicating risks
  • measuring impacts
  • understanding the implications for reef resilience
  • implementing management responses to minimize the severity of damage and/or assist with reef recovery

Bleaching events can develop suddenly, with little time for preparation and mounting a response. Bleaching response plans are an important tool for ensuring reef managers are ready and able to respond appropriately to coral bleaching events. A bleaching response plan describes the steps for detecting, assessing, and responding to bleaching events. It enables managers to be ready should a bleaching event occur. This can be important for the way the incident is portrayed in the media, for ensuring credibility with stakeholders, and to prepare for appropriate management actions. Bleaching response plans commonly have a combination of routine and responsive tasks; responsive tasks are implemented when certain thresholds or triggers are reached.

Bleaching response plans can take many forms, from a complete management response framework (e.g., Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Incidence Response System) including an incident control system and field procedures to a simple one-page description of key steps and triggers. The four main elements of a bleaching response plan are: 1) an early warning system; 2) impact assessment; 3) management interventions; and 4) communications.

This table provides examples of the types of activities that could be implemented under each element for three different resource/capacity scenarios (low, medium, and high resource availability).


Developing a Bleaching Response Plan

Pre-planning before a bleaching event allows managers to quickly respond when bleaching happens. It is critical to plan ahead for staffing, funding, communications, and monitoring. Having a plan in place will also help managers to gain credibility and political support with reef users and decision-makers. When developing bleaching response plans, it is important to include relevant stakeholders and partners, as well as senior officers from within the management organization. Clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of all organizations and individuals involved in a response is also crucial to the effectiveness of a plan. There are some excellent guides and tools (see Resources, below) to assist in preparing and responding to coral bleaching events. We have also developed a  opens in a new windowworksheetopens PDF file  to guide managers through developing a bleaching response plan. This tool can help managers consider a range of issues that support a response, including:

  • Predicting mass bleaching events
  • Setting thresholds for response actions
  • Assessing the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of mass bleaching
  • Monitoring pre- and post-bleaching to identify resilient reef areas
  • Communicating about mass bleaching before, during and after the event
  • Implementing management interventions that may increase coral survival during events
  • Securing funding for a response
  • Identifying and strengthening capacities required for a response

Once a reef has been affected by a coral bleaching event, managers might wish to consider local management interventions or restoration strategies to support recovery processes. However, coral bleaching events often occur at spatial scales of tens to hundreds of kilometers, making restoration an expensive and difficult – if not impossible – prospect.

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