Australia – Monitoring Reef Resilience

Using Resilience Assessments to Inform the Design of Marine Protected Areas in Australia

Keppel Bay Reefs and Islands, Southern Great Barrier Reef, Australia

A bleached landscape from the severe bleaching event in the Keppel Bay in early 2006. © Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

A bleached landscape from the severe bleaching event in the Keppel Bay in early 2006. © Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

The Challenge
The Keppel Islands are a group of 16 continental islands lying 18 km off the coastal town of Yeppoon, in the southern Great Barrier Reef. Located in the shallow basin to the north of Keppel Bay, the islands are host to a patchwork of fringing reefs in various forms of development. Coral communities are abundant in some locations, with coral cover as high as 70%. Additionally, some of these reefs are dominated by extensive stands of branching Acropora that extend into shallow water.

Reefs within the Keppel Bay area have been affected by a devastating series of climate-related events over the last 25 years. Particularly severe flooding events occurred in 1991 and again in 2010. Both of these events devastated shallow reefs in the area. The mass bleaching events of 1998 and 2002 also impacted local reefs, and in the summer of 2006, most sites experienced at least 30% bleaching-induced mortality of corals due to a highly localized and severe warming event. Furthermore, during the latter half of 2006 an extremely low tide coincided with a heavy rainfall event killing many of the reef-flat corals throughout the reefs of the Keppel Bay. During summer 2009-2010, flooding led to a localized coral bleaching event. The flooding that began in 2010 extended through to May 2011 as a result of the record rainfall in the watershed. This most recent flooding caused 40-100% mortality of corals on the mostly fringing reefs, due to prolonged exposure to the freshwater flood plumes.

Many of the reefs within the Keppel Bay area are characterized by mono-specific stands of branching Acropora. The photo highlights that many of the corals at these sites compete for light and space with the macroalgae Lobophora variegata. Photo © Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

Many of the reefs within the Keppel Bay area are characterized by mono-specific stands of branching Acropora. The photo highlights that many of the corals at these sites compete for light and space with the macroalgae Lobophora variegata. © Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

Increasing development and the impact of climate change threaten the ability of the reefs to recover from these disturbances. The broad objective and vision of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) is to provide for the protection, wise use, understanding and enjoyment of the Great Barrier Reef in perpetuity, through the care and development of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This will involve implementing both routine and reactive strategies to mitigate stressors that interact with those of climate change, in an effort to build resilience of the reef to future threats.

The Keppel Islands and surrounding waters are popular with a range of users. Historically, tourism has mainly focused around Great Keppel Island, and camping is available on seven other islands. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) jointly manage the area. Many of the islands are also National Parks, and together with the Marine Park form part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Although there is increasing residential development along the mainland coast, there is also increasing participation in community groups, including the Capricorn Coast Local Marine Advisory Committee (LMAC), that have interests in the management of local environmental issues.

Actions Taken
Resilience is a central goal in the management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and specific resilience-building activities have been part of the management response from the earliest stages of planning and consultation. The Climate Change Group at the GBRMPA developed a resilience assessment and monitoring protocol in late 2007 that was applied to 31 sites within the Keppel Bay region. The initial focus was to test and refine a method for assessing the resilience of reef sites, as a basis for implementing spatial management tools (such as no-anchoring zones). The preliminary resilience assessment involved an identification of reef sites important to local users and assessed them against a suite of broad-scale and local-scale putative resilience indicators derived from preliminary resilience measuring protocols developed by The Nature Conservancy, IUCN Working Group on Climate Change and Coral Reefs, and the GBRMPA. The results of the resilience assessment were integrated into a numerical score that was used to rank sites on the basis of likely resilience to climate change.

Based on the outcomes of the resilience assessment, a ‘Resilience assessment and capacity building’ workshop involving the GBRMPA, QPWS, Traditional Owners, the LMAC, and local stakeholders was held in 2008. This workshop identified candidate sites for the installation of voluntary no-anchoring zones as a mechanism to restrict anchor damage (and hence increase resilience) due to the increase in recreational use of the Keppel Bay region. In late 2008, 16 no-anchoring buoys were installed by QPWS staff at four sites in the Keppel Bay region.

Broad-scale conservation initiatives implemented in recent years have been aimed at restoring and maintaining system resilience. Some initiatives in place in the Keppel Islands include:

  • A comprehensive network of marine protected areas in the area.
  • The Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, which includes an extensive Reef Water Quality Monitoring Program, works with farmers to reduce amounts of fertilizers and sediments entering reef waters.
  • Voluntary moratorium (at some locations) on commercial collection of some aquarium fish species, identified through risk assessments as potentially vulnerable to the combined impacts of disturbance (bleaching and flooding) and fishing. This moratorium was lifted in 2013 in response to signs that corals in key collecting areas had returned to a stable condition.
  • There is generally low take of herbivorous species by recreational and commercial fishers throughout the Great Barrier Reef, which helps to protect the ability of reef areas like the Keppels to recover after damage.

Community engagement is also a key aspect of this resilience-based management initiative. Local reef users are an important source of knowledge on patterns of use, resource condition and dynamics. Also, effective restoration of ecosystem resilience requires active and willing participation of reef users in efforts to reduce local stressors. Finally, meaningful engagement by the local community in development and implementation of resilience-based management actions also help ensure that social and economic impacts are minimized.

A coral-covered reef crest at Sloping Island. Photo © Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

A coral-covered reef crest at Sloping Island. © Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

How successful has it been?
Follow-up monitoring assessments in 2010, 2011, and 2012 revealed that the no-anchoring areas appear to be having a positive influence on coral health. Surveys indicate reduced anchor damage inside all four no-anchoring areas from ~80 instances per 1000 m2 in 2008 to high levels of voluntary compliance with the no-anchoring areas.

MPA network success
A 2010 report on the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan found that progress towards water quality targets was good, but that positive impacts on the marine environment are expected to take longer to manifest. There was a reduction in sediment and nutrient discharge in the Fitzroy watershed, which is the source of floodwaters for the Keppel Bay area.

The local community has become more aware of the vulnerability of the reefs in the area due to involvement in the resilience surveys and participation in the process of identifying sites for no-anchoring areas. This has resulted in a general increase in stewardship in the region, as evidenced by increased compliance with the voluntary no-anchoring areas, and strong willingness to assist researchers working in the area. Building on the knowledge about reef conditions and resilience concepts, the local community has developed organized and well-informed campaigns in response to development proposals in the area.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations
Lessons learned and some key recommendations include:

  • Resilience is a relative concept. For example, a site within one reef region having ‘high’ resilience, may have only ‘low’ or ‘medium’ resilience when compared to sites within other regions, and vice versa. This suggests that absolute values such as high and low should be used with caution. A relative approach (higher or lower), applied within a defined context, is likely to be more meaningful in most situations. In general, GRBMPA now ensures that the spatial context for any resilience assessments is clearly defined and communicated.
  • Quality standards for monitoring protocols should be developed, to reduce biases introduced by differing perspectives and expertise, therefore improving the use of these data for management decisions. The experience from the Keppels has provided the foundation for subsequent initiatives to formalize protocols for assessing system resilience. This includes a project in the Caribbean to develop a rapid resilience assessment protocol (monitoring multi-tool) for coral reef managers.
  • The Keppel Bay project first brought to light the value in using a simple, semi-quantitative approach to assessing resilience, using local and scientific expertise to estimate values for resilience indicator variables. Although coarse, this approach provides sufficient resolution for prioritizing management actions. Subsequent work has helped identify a more manageable set of resilience indicators, and the project in the Caribbean to develop a rapid resilience assessment protocol is designed around use of community members and local knowledge.
  • Community engagement at every step of the process was highly beneficial and as such, the no-anchoring zones appear to be having a positive influence on reef health despite being voluntary and non-enforceable.

Funding Summary
Department of Environment and Heritage Program
Queensland Department of National Parks, Recreation, Sport and Racing

Lead Organizations
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

Australian Institute of Marine Science
James Cook University
University of Queensland
Central Queensland University
Department of National Parks, Recreation, Sport, and Racing
Pro-vision Reef Inc.

Biophysical Assessment of the Reefs of Keppel Bay: A Baseline Study April 2007, Climate Change Group, GBRMPA (pdf)

Keppel Bay Case Study, GBRMPA (pdf)

Zoning map of the Capricorn section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (pdf)

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