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