Many factors contribute to the resilience of a coral community, such as the presence of herbivorous fish populations. Photo © David Obura

The resilience of a reef is influenced by ecological factors (e.g., resistant coral species, temperature variability) and factors related to anthropogenic stress. In the context of coral reef ecosystems, these factors, also called ‘resilience indicators,’ affect whether and how corals resist and recover from stress. Reef scientists and managers have collaborated to identify and prioritize resilience indicators; ref this effort identifies indicators for which there is strong evidence of a link to the capacity of corals or a coral community to resist impacts or recover from disturbances, and indicators that can reliably be measured or assessed.

Key Resilience Indicators

Scientists have prioritized the following 15 indicators as likely to be the most important to support the resilience of coral reef ecosystems; ref 11 of these are ecological and 4 are related to anthropogenic stress.

Key ecological resilience indicators:

Key anthropogenic stressors:

A recent paper ref assessed recovery patterns of 21 reef sites in the Seychelles over a 17 year period, spanning a major climate-induced bleaching event. The authors identified a range of factors affecting recovery patterns, but found that quantifying structural complexity and water depth before the bleaching event accurately predicted ecosystem response following bleaching.

“Several factors can affect reef ecosystem trajectories following bleaching but, where necessary, just depth and structural complexity may be useful predictors of ecosystem  fate.” ref

Graham et al. (2015) found that recovery was favored when reefs were:

  • structurally complex (when values before disturbance were >3.1) and in deeper water (>6.6 m)
  • density of juvenile corals and herbivorous fishes was relatively high (i.e., >6.2 per m2 of juvenile corals; herbivorous fish biomass of 177 kg ha-1)
  • nutrient loads were low (carbon: nitrogen ratios in macroalgae >38)

Although this study focused on reefs in the Seychelles, the authors note that the predictors are relevant for reefs globally; specifically, depth and structural complexity were consistent predictors of recovery patterns across 6 other countries from East Africa to the South Pacific.

Structural complexity captures the structure provided by corals and the underlying reef matrix, and influences a range of ecological processes, substantially contributing to overall diversity and productivity of many reef associated organisms. Deeper sites may recover better due to the relationship between light penetration and algal growth (shallower areas receive greater light penetration which stimulates algal growth) or greater vulnerability of shallower reefs to disturbances such as recurrent coral bleaching or storm damage. Researchers have debated whether levels of nutrients or herbivory are more important for coral reef regime shifts or recovery, but these results suggest that although both are important, they are less certain predictors than structural complexity, depth, and the density of juvenile corals.

How to Select Indicators

While the list of indicators above may be used to help managers prioritize which ones to include in a resilience assessment or monitoring program, it may also be useful for managers to review key publications to identify additional indicators to use in their local context. ref

Indicators should be selected that are thought to have strong links to resistance or recovery based on local knowledge, and that can be reliably assessed using the same methodology for all sites. In addition, the assessment of all indicators must be within the expertise and resources available.

It is useful to select indicators through a collaborative process that includes representatives from all agencies and groups likely to use the results and outputs of the assessment or monitoring program.

How Many Resilience Indicators Should be Included in an Assessment?

A minimum of 7 of the ecological resilience indicators should be selected and as many of the anthropogenic stressors should be measured or assessed at each site as is practical. Additionally, it is important for managers to consider that the total number of indicators included in an assessment will affect the power that each indicator has to determine resilience potential; because the importance of each individual indicator is diluted with each indicator that is included.

Managers may use existing data or may need to collect new data for all or some of the indicators. There are many suitable methods for assessing resilience indicators (see the Resources sections on the Designing a Monitoring Plan and Assessing and Monitoring Reef Resilience; see Analyzing Relative Resilience for detailed information on how to analyze the data once collected and compiled.


Prioritizing Key Resilience Indicators to Support Coral Reef Management in a Changing Climate (pdf, 385k)

IUCN Working Group on Climate Change and Coral Reefs

How-to Guide for Conducting Resilience Assessments (pdf, 1.3M)

Resilience Assessment of Coral Reefs (pdf, 4.9M)

Coral Reef Monitoring Manaul for the Caribbean and Western Atlantic (pdf, 3M)

Methods for Ecological Monitoring of Coral Reefs (pdf, 2.3M)

Monitoring Coral Reef Marine Protected Areas: A Practical Guide On How Monitoring Can Support Effective Management of MPAs (pdf, 4.8M)

Reef Resilience Webinar on a Resilience Assessment for Saipan, CNMI

Assessing relative resilience potential of coral reefs to inform management (pdf, 1.8)

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Last updated July 25, 2017

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