New Research Shows There Are More Opportunities to Save Coral Reefs

Research gives more sophisticated understanding of coral reef health

November 16, 2018
Matt Smelser, (202) 572-3272,

(SAN FRANCISCO – Nov. 16, 2018) A new study published today in Scientific Reports, provides new hope and a new tool for monitoring coral reefs. The research, authored by scientists at the University of California Santa Barbara, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and other leading research organizations, shows that coral reefs experience five different phases. 

Previous approaches to managing coral health were limited to identifying corals as either being healthy, bleached, or dead. These newly identified phases give scientists a better understanding of the health of coral reefs and can help determine more effective, phase-specific management to aid their recovery. 

“What if doctors believed that people are either healthy or dead, with no in-between states?  They would be missing a lot of opportunities to prevent death,” said Kendra Karr, Senior Scientist, EDF. “This study reveals that communities around the world may be missing opportunities to prevent death, or bleaching, of coral reef ecosystems.”

The analysis presented in the study is based on more than 3,000 scuba surveys across the Hawaiian Islands. There is the potential that these phases extended to coral reefs globally. By combining fish and coral reef habitat into communities, these five reef phases capture complex dynamics; offering new opportunities to monitor reef change and guide management of coral.

“Just like we need different treatments to address our individual illnesses as patients, each coral reef phase may need a different approach to recovery,” said Karr. 

The phases established in this research range from having high coral cover and high fish biomass to having low coral cover and low fish biomass, with scenarios varying in between. We know that even small shifts in environmental conditions can bring about large, sometimes abrupt changes, or tipping points, in an ecosystem. With the right guidance, fishery managers can identify and avoid abrupt changes to ocean ecosystems that threaten coral reefs.

Science has shown that even reefs identified as being negatively impacted by issues like bleaching, overfishing and storm impacts can recover. However, for this to happen we need global collective action from governments and advocates.

“It is our hope that citizen scientists and coral enthusiasts around the world use this study to participate in monitoring coral reef phases anywhere – whether it’s monitoring corals right off their shore, or in new areas they are passionate about,” said Karr. “Doing so will give decision-makers more opportunities to help save these precious resources.”

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