Responsive Monitoring

The coral reefs of Palau are part of a massive interconnected system that ties together Micronesia and the Western Pacific. Photo © Ian Shive

Impacts from acute disturbances to coral reefs, such as bleaching, storm damage, ship groundings, and disease outbreaks, require managers to have a responsive monitoring plan that complements routine monitoring. Managers often need to know the extent and severity of these acute impacts soon after they occur. Responsive monitoring helps to ensure timely and credible communication with stakeholders and helps target management actions which support recovery.

Monitoring bleaching in Keppel Islands, Australia. Photo © Paul Marshall

Responsive monitoring programs may be developed at any time, and may be reviewed and modified when impacts occur. Developing a responsive monitoring program follows the same steps presented in the Designing a Monitoring Program section. However, for each of these steps, there are considerations unique to responsive monitoring that should be considered.


Setting Objectives and Thresholds/Triggers

Managers should avoid the urge to rush into the monitoring of reef condition when impacts occur or are expected to occur. Taking a few days to set (or review) objectives will inform additional steps in the process of developing (or fine-tuning) a responsive monitoring plan.

Collecting information on the spatial extent and severity of impacts is the primary objective of many responsive monitoring programs. Other specific objectives relate to collecting data and compiling information that managers either: 1) want to share with a certain target audience(s) (e.g., media, stakeholders, public and manager partners), or 2) need to target or justify follow-on actions to support recovery that may be triggered by monitoring. Therefore, identifying target audiences and discussing thresholds that trigger management actions are both key to the objective-setting process. Once objectives are set, managers will be able to select variables and design a sampling strategy.


Selecting Variables

Variables need to be selected that indicate the severity of the impacts that have occurred. Impact severity can be expressed in many ways and information should be collected on all the following:

  • Percent of coral and/or reef community affected by the impact
  • Average severity level of the impact
  • Types of corals or other members of the reef community most affected
  • Types of corals or other members of the reef community least affected

Managers will want responsive monitoring to detect and understand change so variables should also be selected that are used in routine monitoring programs.


Monitoring Methods

Responsive monitoring often requires managers to survey many locations in a short period of time. Often, rapid assessment method is used to help managers balance methods that meet information needs, while also producing data that are robust and comparable with previously collect data. Such methods have been developed for use during bleaching events and disease outbreaks and following severe storms (see Resources). Any selected method will need to be achievable within resource and time limitations and will also need to be repeatable – using the same methods during different disturbances will ensure that comparisons can be made.


Sampling Design

Responsive monitoring is similar to routine monitoring in that the objectives and the resources available will determine the type and location of the sites chosen, and the number of sites surveyed in total.

When impacts occur, special considerations need to be taken into account when selecting sites:

  • Assess both the spatial extent and the severity of impacts
  • Survey sites representative of all habitat types
  • Consider giving special consideration to monitoring economically or culturally significant sites
  • Avoid only surveying severely affected sites

Managers may find that it is important to communicate about sites that are not affected by a particular disturbance. Therefore, sites with low, medium, and high exposure to the stressor should be surveyed (e.g., high temperatures for bleaching, wind-generated waves during storms).


Survey Timing

Impacts to corals and/or the coral reef community can only be assessed reliably for a short time following a disturbance. Typically, bleaching, the visible signs of predation events and disease outbreaks, and the rubble created by corals breaking during storms, can only be seen for a period of a few weeks. After this time, algae begin to colonize dead corals and broken corals may be washed from the reef.

Surveys need to be timed well to: 1) attribute impacts to a stessor or disturbance event, and 2) the assessed severity level is accurate and not an under-estimate, which may happen if the surveys are conducted too early or too late. As a general rule, responsive monitoring of bleaching events should occur 2-6 weeks after the peek thermal stress and monitoring should be undertaken after severe storms as soon as sea conditions are safe. Predation events, like outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, and disease outbreaks probably require surveys be completed more than once to assess the progression of the outbreak.


Including Community Members and Stakeholders

Disturbances to reefs may generate attention from the media and senior decision-makers and may negatively affect reef stakeholders. In response to such negative attention, engaging people in responsive monitoring can be an important way for managers to increase awareness for the importance of coral reef protection and stewardship. Benefits of participatory monitoring are described on the Participatory Monitoring page.

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