Attributes of Coral Reef Resilience

Goby at Midway Reef, Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea. Photo © Jeff Yonover

The components of coral reef resilience (e.g., resistance, recovery, transformation, exposure, sensitivity, adaptive capacity) are determined by various ecological and social attributes. Understanding these attributes is key to reef ecosystem management.

Ecological Resilience Attributes

A few key attributes for coral reef ecosystems include:

  • Diversity and Functional Redundancy - High levels of biodiversity increase the chances of varied responses to threats. Diversity includes genetic diversity, species diversity, and morphological diversity of corals and other reef species, as well as diversity in the assemblages of zooxanthellae. Functional redundancy refers to different species performing the same role or function within the reef ecosystem, which provide a safety net should one species be lost from the system. Functional groups on a coral reef include habitat builders, primary producers, bioeroders, grazers, browsers, and predators. ref
  • Recruitment - Recruitment is the process by which young individuals (e.g., fish and coral larvae, algae propagules) undergo larval settlement and become part of the adult population. Natural recruitment is an important indicator of reef resilience. On a healthy reef, recruitment ensures high levels of biodiversity and functional redundancy; on a damaged reef, recruitment ensures recovery. Favorable recruitment conditions are facilitated by physical oceanographic conditions such as oceanic currents and eddies between reefs, and micro-currents within reefs; larval sources which may be from within the same reef (self-recruiting) or from another reef (source reef); and suitable habitats, both in terms of space availability and type of substrates.
  • Herbivory - Since healthy herbivore populations keep macroalgae from overgrowing corals or inhibiting coral recruitment, they are critically important to the resilience of coral reefs. Herbivorous fishes are divided into four functional groups, based on their role in controlling algal growth and maintaining the reef substrate for coral recruitment. These include scrapers/small excavators, large excavators/bioeroders, grazers/detritivores, and browsers. Each functional group makes an important and complementary contribution to reef resilience.
Two different fish species, a unicornfish (Naso brachysentron) and a rudderfish (Kyphosus vaigiensis) performing the same function of browsers on the reef removing macroalgae. Photo © Mark Rosenstein (left); Source: Green and Bellwood 2009 (right)

Two different fish species, a unicornfish (Naso brachysentron) and a rudderfish (Kyphosus vaigiensis) performing the same function of browsers on the reef removing macroalgae. Photo © Mark Rosenstein (left); Source: opens in a new windowGreen and Bellwood 2009opens PDF file (right)

Social Resilience Attributes

Understanding the social attributes of a community that strengthen (or weaken) the resilience of socio-ecological systems is the subject of ongoing research and requires investigating the resilience of the communities and their governance systems. A few key attributes include (adapted from  opens in a new windowCinner and Barnes 2019opens PDF file , opens in a new windowReef Resilience Frameworkopens PDF file ):

  • Resources that are technical, financial, or service-based and enable local people to adapt to the loss of a reef-dependent livelihood.
  • Flexibility, which is not only a function of the diversity of options available, but also of having the mindset and willingness to adapt and change in the face of challenges and uncertainties.
  • Governance, including institutions and social networks, affect the ability to organize and act accordingly in the face of threats. Governance also encompasses community organization and the structure of decision-making processes and is further influenced by rules and regulations, leadership, management, accountability, and equity.
  • Knowledge provides the capacity to recognize and respond to change. Knowledge is a function of education and access to information and memories from past experiences. Engaging people with ancestral ties to a place (i.e., Traditional Owners and Indigenous Peoples) and incorporating their knowledge in decision-making is a critical part of any process related to strengthening resilience.
  • Health and culture, such as personal experiences, perceived norms, and attitudes towards risks, may trigger or repress the willingness to act, and affect agency and compliance.
The farming of sea cucumbers is an alternative livelihood to other extractive fishing practices. Photo © Garth Cripps/Blue Ventures

The farming of sea cucumbers is an alternative livelihood to other extractive fishing practices. Photo © Garth Cripps/Blue Ventures

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