Continuing degradation of coral reef ecosystems has generated substantial interest in how management can support reef resilience1,2. Fishing is the primary source of diminished reef function globally3,4,5, leading to widespread calls for additional marine reserves to recover fish biomass and restore key ecosystem functions6. Yet there are no established baselines for determining when these conservation objectives have been met or whether alternative management strategies provide similar ecosystem benefits. Here we establish empirical conservation benchmarks and fish biomass recovery timelines against which coral reefs can be assessed and managed by studying the recovery potential of more than 800 coral reefs along an exploitation gradient. We show that resident reef fish biomass in the absence of fishing (B0) averages 1,000 kg ha−1, and that the vast majority (83%) of fished reefs are missing more than half their expected biomass, with severe consequences for key ecosystem functions such as predation. Given protection from fishing, reef fish biomass has the potential to recover within 35 years on average and less than 60 years when heavily depleted. Notably, alternative fisheries restrictions are largely (64%) successful at maintaining biomass above 50% of B0, sustaining key functions such as herbivory. Our results demonstrate that crucial ecosystem functions can be maintained through a range of fisheries restrictions, allowing coral reef managers to develop recovery plans that meet conservation and livelihood objectives in areas where marine reserves are not socially or politically feasible solutions.

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We thank M. Emslie, A. Cheal, J. Wetherall, C. Hutchery and K. Anthony for comments on early drafts of the manuscript. The Australian Institute of Marine Science, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supported this research.

Author information


  1. Australian Institute of Marine Science, PMB 3 Townsville MC, Townsville, Queensland 4810, Australia

    • M. Aaron MacNeil
  2. Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 3J5, Canada

    • M. Aaron MacNeil
  3. Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia

    • M. Aaron MacNeil
    • , Nicholas A. J. Graham
    •  & Joshua E. Cinner
  4. Department of Parks and Wildlife, Kensington, Perth, Western Australia 6151, Australia

    • Shaun K. Wilson
  5. Oceans Institute, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Western Australia 6009, Australia

    • Shaun K. Wilson
  6. Coral Reef Ecosystems Division, NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, Honolulu, Hawaii 96818, USA

    • Ivor D. Williams
  7. Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED), University of Queensland, Brisbane, St Lucia, Queensland 4074, Australia

    • Joseph Maina
  8. Wildlife Conservation Society, Marine Programs, Bronx, New York 10460, USA

    • Joseph Maina
    • , Stacy Jupiter
    •  & Tim R. McClanahan
  9. School of Marine Science and Technology, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, UK

    • Steven Newman
    •  & Nicholas V. C. Polunin
  10. Fisheries Ecology Research Lab, Department of Biology, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

    • Alan M. Friedlander
  11. Pristine Seas-National Geographic, Washington DC 20036, USA

    • Alan M. Friedlander


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M.A.M. conceived of the study with N.A.J.G., N.V.C.P., T.R.M., S.K.W. and J.E.C.; M.A.M. developed and implemented the analysis; M.A.M. led the manuscript with N.A.J.G., J.E.C. and S.K.W. All other authors contributed data and made substantive contributions to the text.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to M. Aaron MacNeil.

This is Social Ecological Research Frontiers (SERF) working group contribution number 10.

Extended data

Supplementary information

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  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Data Provider Acknowledgements, a supplementary glossary of terms, PyMC (Python) code for the full Bayesian hierarchical model used to estimate recovery rates and unfished biomass from the global coral reef biomass dataset and Supplementary Table 1.

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Table 2, a complete reef fish list, including functional group categorization and inclusion criteria (where included=='1') for the recovery analysis.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Table 3, posterior summary statistics for full Bayesian hierarchical analysis used to estimate recovery rates and unfished biomass from the global coral reef biomass dataset.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Table 4, reef-site (reef) metadata including data provider, locality name, reef name, latitude, longitude, and year of collection.

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