Capturing the cornerstones of coral reef resilience - linking theory to practice

Publication review

Resilience researchers put theory into practice on how to safe coral reefs.

Magnus Nyström, Jerker Lokrantz and Albert Norström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Department of Systems Ecology present a review article in the latest issue of the journal Coral Reefs.

The article, which is entitled Capturing the cornerstones of coral reef resilience: linking theory to practice, is written together with UK researcher Nicholas Graham from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, Australia. 

Staggering consequences
The world´s coral reefs are threatened by a range of human-induced pressures, including climate change, coastal development, overfishing and pollution. Faced with these threats, reefs seldom respond in a linear way. Rather, they tend to undergo unexpected and dramatic (and sometimes irreversible) changes in community composition, so called phase shifts.

The implications of these are absolutely staggering, not only for biodiversity but also for ecosystem services like tourism, fisheries and coastal protection.

No wonder, then, that many managers and researchers around the world now search for early warning signals or - as it is labelled in the new article - “operational indicators of resilience" in order to predict vulnerability before such abrupt phase shifts occur.

Resilience is the capacity of a coral reef to both withstand disturbance (like storms, overfishing and pollutants) and to rebuild itself if damaged. Hence, the more resilient a coral reef is, the less likely it is to abruptly switch into alternative degraded and stable states.

Practical resilience applications have lagged behind
- The rapid development of resilience has been paramount for the understanding of dynamic ecosystem behaviour in everything from coral reefs and lakes to oceans and forests, but practical advancements of how to operationalize resilience theory have lagged behind, says Magnus Nyström, lead author of the article. 

The review presents indicators such as “functional group approaches", “the ratios of ‘good´ and ‘bad´ colonizers of space", “measurements of spatial heterogeneity", and “estimates of potential space availability against grazing capacity" of fish and sea urchins.  

The work is considered an important step forward in how to apply resilience theory as a tool to improve coral reef management, but there is still much ground to be made.

- Much research remains to test, refine, and develop the use of these indicators in a management context in order to make them truly operational, the four researchers write.


Link to centre authors: Norström, Albert, Nyström, Magnus
Publication info: Nyström, M., Graham, N., Lokrantz, J., Norström, A., 2008, Capturing the Cornerstones of Coral Reef Resilience - Linking Theory to Practice. Coral Reefs. October 1st, DOI: 10.1007/s00338-008-0426-z.