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Confronting the coral reef crisis

Abstract

The worldwide decline of coral reefs calls for an urgent reassessment of current management practices. Confronting large-scale crises requires a major scaling-up of management efforts based on an improved understanding of the ecological processes that underlie reef resilience. Managing for improved resilience, incorporating the role of human activity in shaping ecosystems, provides a basis for coping with uncertainty, future changes and ecological surprises. Here we review the ecological roles of critical functional groups (for both corals and reef fishes) that are fundamental to understanding resilience and avoiding phase shifts from coral dominance to less desirable, degraded ecosystems. We identify striking biogeographic differences in the species richness and composition of functional groups, which highlight the vulnerability of Caribbean reef ecosystems. These findings have profound implications for restoration of degraded reefs, management of fisheries, and the focus on marine protected areas and biodiversity hotspots as priorities for conservation.

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Figure 1: Degradation of coral reefs.
Figure 2: Alternate states in coral reef ecosystems.
Figure 3: Functional composition of Caribbean and Great Barrier Reef assemblages of fishes and corals.
Figure 4: Three critical functional groups and their roles in facilitating reef recovery.
Figure 5: The mismatch between the economics of consumption and the ecological role of fishes on coral reefs.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Australian Research Council, the Queensland Government, and the Beijer Institute of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for facilitating meetings of the authors in Australia and Sweden; the Laboratoire de Biologie Marine et Malacologie at the University of Perpignan for hosting a sabbatical visit by T.P.H.; the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for provision of images; Lizard Island Research Station for field support; colleagues in the Resilience Alliance, Centre for Coral Reef Biodiversity, James Cook University, and Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, for comments or discussions. This work was supported by the Australian Research Council (D.R.B. and T.P.H.), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the Swedish Research Council for the Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (Formas) (C.F. and M.N.), and the Packard Foundation (Resilience Alliance).

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Bellwood, D., Hughes, T., Folke, C. et al. Confronting the coral reef crisis. Nature 429, 827–833 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02691

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