Community Change and Evidence For Variable Warm-Water Temperature Adaptation Of Corals In Northern Male Atoll, Maldives

This study is a descriptive analysis of coral reef communities in North Male, Maldives seven years after the major 1998 coral bleaching event with the goal of evaluating ongoing changes and ability for adaptation. The study looked at coral community composition, recruitment community, evidence for recovery and responses to corals to a subsequent thermal anomaly in 2005. Eleven shallow reef areas consisting of hard calcium carbonate were assessed using benthic field measurements and bleaching surveys. Maldivian coral recovery showed considerable spatial and taxonomic variability, with dominant taxa characterized by stress tolerance and several previously common taxa now still quite rare. Compared to other Indian Ocean islands, the Maldivian coral response was considerably more variable and complicated. The authors conclude that natural selective processes are in progress with responses showing potential for adaptation.

Author: McClanahan, T.R. and N.A. Muthiga
Year: 2014
View Abstract
Email for the full article:

Marine Pollution Bulletin 80(1-2): 107-113

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New and improved Network Forum

The Reef Resilience Network has launched a new and improved online discussion forum!

Now part of the Reef Resilience website, this interactive online community is a place where coral reef managers and practitioners from around the world can connect and share with others to better manage marine resources.

If you work to protect, manage, or promote coral reefs please join the conversation:

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New Reef Resilience Online Course Launched

The new online course Advanced Studies in Coral Reef Resilience is designed to provide coral reef managers and practitioners in-depth guidance on managing for resilience. This free course incorporates new science, case studies, and management practices described in the Reef Resilience Toolkit.

The course includes six modules that discuss local and global stressors affecting coral reefs, guidance for identifying coral reef resilience indicators, design principles for resilient MPA networks, methods for implementing resilience assessments, and important communication tools for managers. Course participants can choose to complete any or all lessons within course modules. Read more.

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Contrasting Patterns of Coral Bleaching Susceptibility in 2010 Suggest an Adaptive Response to Thermal Stress

Guest et al. (2012) examine the bleaching and mortality responses of corals at sites in Southeast Asia with different thermal histories during a large-scale bleaching event in 2010 to explore whether corals have the capacity to adapt to elevated sea temperatures. They also assess whether reefs in more thermally variable environments bleach less severely during heat stress events. They found increases in thermal tolerance on reefs that previously experienced major bleaching with the most susceptible species exhibiting the greatest increases in thermal tolerance. They also demonstrated that corals generally bleached less severely at locations where temperature variability has been greater and warming rates lower over the last 60 years. These results are important because they suggest that locations that are more resistant to bleaching can be identified from analyzing their thermal histories, and such sites could be considered priorities for protection in marine protected area (MPAs). These results add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the capacity for adaptation and acclimatization in corals has been underestimated which is good news for coral reefs.

Author: Guest, J.R., A.H. Baird, J.A. Maynard, E. Muttaqin, A.J. Edwards, S.J. Campbell, K. Yewdall, Y.A. Affendi, and L.M. Chou
Year: 2012
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PLoS ONE 7(3): e33353. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033353

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Malaysia – Communication


Managing Communication to Mitigate Potential Damage of Coral Reef Bleaching

Tioman Island, Malaysia

The Challenge
Tioman Island, part of the Tioman archipelago, is located about 55 km off the east coast of the Malaysian Peninsula in the South China Sea. The island is approximately 136 km2, with 14.5 km2 of reefs located primarily off the west coast. The archipelago includes four small islands which are ten to a few hundred meters in length, and are surrounded by reefs with 200-300 species of coral in the most diverse areas. Historically, fishing was the mainstay of the communities on Tioman, but more recently dive tourism has grown and now caters to 200,000 tourists each year, the majority of whom are divers or snorkelers. There are six villages scattered around the island which is home to a population of over 3,000 people. A no-take marine protected area (MPA), established in 1994, surrounds Tioman Island and extends for two nautical miles from the low water mark. Visitors to the island pay a conservation charge of 5 Malaysian Ringgit (in 2014, approximately US $1.53) which accrues to a Trust Fund.

Bleached coral Malaysia

Bleached coral. © Reef Check Malaysia

In March 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) alerted the region to the threat of an imminent coral bleaching event. Observations in May 2010 by Reef Check Malaysia, a local nongovernmental organizaton, confirmed significant bleaching. Through surveys, Reef Check found that 90% of the corals in Tioman were bleached. The worst of the bleaching came in June and lasted through August. Water temperatures surrounding Tioman Island reached 3-4°C above normal. Reef Check observed that the bleaching affected other islands off the east coast of Malaysia and affected the deepest reefs in the region – as deep as 20 m.

Actions Taken

Reef Check Dive Operators

Reef Check Malaysia conducts annual surveys. © Reef Check Malaysia

Institutional Response
Once NOAA alerted the region about bleaching, the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia, the national management authority for natural resources, established a monitoring program. In May 2010, the bleaching event came to the public’s attention when a dive operator from mainland Malaysia returned from a dive trip off Tioman Island and relayed the information to a friend who worked at a local newspaper. With very little scientific or empirical data, the bleaching event was reported in the local news and asserted that the coral reefs around Tioman were all dying due to bleaching. Dive site closures were suggested as one possible management option.

Reef Check Malaysia took the initiative to use reef resilience concepts to identify which reef sites would be most suitable for protection, with minimal disruption to tourism businesses, in the event site closures were deemed necessary. Reef Check approached dive operators on Tioman and two adjacent islands – Perhentian and Redang. Through discussions, it was determined which sites to close that would have a minimal impact on dive business. Reef Check aimed to close four critical sites on each island for protection. However, before the consultation process was completed, in June 2010, the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia announced area closure plans because of the severity of the bleaching. Due to a lack of clear communication, subsequent news reports (both local and international) suggested that entire islands were being closed to diving, not just selected reef sites. Because of the poor communication, most dive shop operators did not support the government-mandated closures and did not consider the closures when taking tourists to the reefs.

Reef Check Community Consultations

Reef Check Malaysia consultations. © Reef Check Malaysia

Bleaching Response Plan
In response to the lack of an organized action plan regarding the 2010 bleaching event, Reef Check began writing a bleaching response plan for Malaysia in 2011. The plan was adopted and published by the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia in 2012. The four major components of the plan are:

  1. Early warning system
  2. Ground-truthing survey
  3. Public awareness and communication exercise
  4. Resilience building action plan

The plan established a Bleaching Response Committee and clearly highlights steps to follow during bleaching events. For example, on receipt of a “bleaching watch” announcement from NOAA, the Committee will automatically issue pre-prepared emails requesting dive operators to conduct weekly Bleaching Watch surveys. In the event the alert level is increased to a “bleaching warning” the Committee will automatically issue invitations to specialists to conduct ground truthing surveys, and if the alert level reaches “bleaching alert level 1” the Committee will automatically issue pre-prepared site closure notices.

The plan includes pre-written press releases and FAQs for use at different stages of a bleaching event, and a database of relevant contacts, including media and dive and resort operators. The plan includes consultation with relevant stakeholders to clearly communicate the bleaching response plan (i.e., site closures).

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

  • Clarity of Communication: Reef Check Malaysia used a communication response to mitigate the potential damage from a bleaching event. Management can only be effective if stakeholders at all levels know what is going on and where it is happening. Creating a communication plan will ensure everyone will be up-to-date and informed, to prevent misinformation and miscommunication.
  • Consultation: It is important to communicate with businesses that will be impacted by a disturbance. It is also important to educate and consult the community. Even if community members are not directly affected by a disturbance, they can help to mitigate damage.
  • Increasing Local Resilience: The most common cause of coral bleaching is regional increases in water temperature, a worldwide threat associated with global climate change. Although the cause of the disturbance is not local, the focus must be on local management of threats because this builds resilience. The global nature of this threat means that management of these events becomes just as important as preventing them.

Funding Summary
Reef Check Malaysia relies on corporate sponsorship for most of its funding, as well as some grant funding:

  • Khazanah Nasional Berhad
  • United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

Lead Organizations
Reef Check Malaysia

Reef Check Malaysia Annual Survey Report 2010 (PDF)
Reef Check Malaysia Annual Survey Report 2011 (PDF)
Coral Bleaching
Bleaching Watch Survey Reporting Form (PDF)

Written by: Julian Hyde, Reef Check Malaysia

This case study was adapted from: Cullman, G. (ed.) 2014. Resilience Sourcebook: Case studies of social-ecological resilience in island systems. Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY.

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Chronic Nutrient Enrichment Increases Prevalence and Severity of Coral Disease and Bleaching

After exposing test plots in the Florida Keys, USA to increased nutrients (at levels equivalent to nutrient input from onshore sources), researchers found that increased nutrient levels led to increased prevalence and severity of coral diseases and coral bleaching. However, one year after nutrient enrichment stopped, there were no differences in bleaching or disease, indicating that coastal nutrients are increasing prevalence of bleaching and disease. Local scale nutrient input may worsen the effects of global stressors, so limiting nutrient input may be an important management tool for reducing threats to corals. This study is the first to show that nutrients can cause an increase of prevalence of disease or bleaching in the field. 

Vega Thurber, R.L., D.E. Burkepile, C. Fuchs, A.A. Shantz, R. McMinds, and J.R. Zaneveld
Year: 2013
View Abstract
Email for the full article:

Global Change Biology 20(2): 544–554. doi:10.1111/gcb.12450

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Kenya – Disturbance Response

Coral Bleaching Response and Monitoring in the Kiunga Marine National Reserve

Kiunga, Kenya, Western Indian Ocean

Kiunga Marine Project map. © World Wildlife Fund/Kenya Wildlife Service

Kiunga Marine Project map. © World Wildlife Fund/Kenya Wildlife Service

The Challenge
Kiunga Marine National Reserve (KMNR) is located at the northernmost stretch of the Kenyan coastline at the confluence of two major ocean currents (the north-flowing East African coastal current and the south-flowing Somali current), which creates nutrient-rich upwelling. The reserve covers 250km2 and provides a refuge for sea turtles and dugongs. The coral reefs found within KMNR are comprised of mainly patch reefs, with fringing reef in the northern part. Seagrass beds form the most extensive wildlife habitat in the KMNR. Mangroves also provide critical habitat for various species, serving as forage and resting areas for sea turtles and nursery grounds for juvenile fishes. These mangrove-dominated environments equate to approximately 30% – 40% of Kenya’s mangrove stock.

The primary goal of the reserve is to safeguard the biodiversity and integrity of physical and ecological processes of KMNR, for the health, welfare, enjoyment and inspiration of present and future generations. Although resilience principles were not initially taken into consideration during the design of the reserve in 1979, they have since played a major role in the management of the reserve. The 1998 mass bleaching event triggered interest in the effects of climate change, and subsequently resilience principles were incorporated into the management plan.

Barracudas. © Gabriel Grimsditch

Barracudas. © Gabriel Grimsditch

Climate change, El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) related events, and overfishing are a threat to this area. Kiunga reefs are ecologically marginal due to a natural barrier provided by major rivers separating them from other Kenyan reefs, and to the influence of high nutrients from upwelling off Somalia. The Kiunga reef system has not recovered from the 1998 bleaching event as quickly as other reefs along the Kenyan coast.

Numerous factors have made management of the reserve challenging. Due to the area’s proximity to the Somali border, it is difficult to enforce management schemes and patrol the area. The local community does not have a strong appreciation for sustainable resource exploitation in an area of constant lawlessness. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) are working to promote environmental education and awareness programs that co-manage natural resources with the local community. The area’s remoteness also makes management challenging because of logistics, high operational costs, and the difficulty of recruiting and retaining skilled and dedicated personnel.

Kiunga Marine National Reserve. © Gabriel Grimsditch

Kiunga Marine National Reserve. © Gabriel Grimsditch

Actions Taken
To address the issues of management capacity, WWF and KWS have partnered with conservation and research organizations to carry out regular monitoring to both share costs and attract expertise. With the assistance of partners, the goal has been to reduce impacts (such as fishing) by encouraging sustainable gear and practices, thus improving the reefs ability to withstand natural disturbances.

Currently, coral reef resilience monitoring is being implemented due to the development of an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) methodology. In 1998, the ENSO-related bleaching event generated a partnership between Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean (CORDIO) East Africa, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) for monitoring. These partners focused on monitoring bleaching (using a Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network methodology), while a wider team of 20 local fishermen monitored other coral reef ecological indicators such as fish, invertebrate and benthic populations, as well as the use of fishing gear. In 2006, a monitoring partnership with KWS began monitoring coral disease. In 2008, monitoring of coral reef resilience began in partnership with IUCN, CORDIO and KWS. Indicators that are being monitored include coral size class, herbivorous fish populations, coral condition and other wider resilience indicators such as oceanographic, anthropogenic and ecological factors. These various monitoring programs have guided management interventions by forming the benchmark for a zoning plan, and by enhancing co-management of natural resources due to increased participation and knowledge of fishermen in the region.

How Successful has it been?
The integration of resilience principles in the management of the KMNR has improved management of resources due to increased knowledge of the reserve and its resources. Additionally, co-management has been enhanced and relationships with the local community have improved. Lastly, the level of awareness of coral reef conservation within the local fishing communities has increased. This has changed the attitude of fishermen, who now recognize the importance of conserving their environment for the future and are now less likely to use destructive fishing gear.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

  • Functional partnerships between government agencies and NGOs are critical for effective management and cost reduction.
  • Community buy-in is critical to establishing resource ownership and raising awareness/knowledge of environmental/climate change issues within the local community.
  • It is recommended that resilience studies and principles be understood and communicated among scientists, resource managers, and resource users.
  • It is critical to reduce the human impacts on reserves to provide a foundation for resource managers to better mitigate against the impacts of climate change.
  • Raising the profile of climate change is critical so that managers can help the community understand the real and present threat to natural resources.
  • Working to increase community understanding of the importance of taking a resilience-based approach to management is critical to management success.


Funding Summary
MacArthur Foundation
United States Agency for International Development (USAID-GCP)
Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA)
United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)
World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

Lead Organizations
WWF Regional Office for Africa
Coastal Oceans Research and Development – Indian Ocean East Africa (CORDIO)

Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS)
Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI)
Kenya Department of Fisheries
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Kiunga Marine Reserve
Natural resource dependence, livelihoods and development: Perceptions from Kiunga, Kenya (pdf)

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Florida – Disturbance Response

Disturbance Response and Monitoring Program in Action in the Florida Keys

Florida Keys and southeast Florida mainland, USA

Florida bleaching mapThe Challenge
The Florida Reef Resilience Program (FRRP) region includes the Dry Tortugas and Florida Keys, and extends up the southeast Florida coast to Martin County. The FRRP started in 2004, and is a multi-year effort to develop and share management approaches and tools to cope with climate change and other stresses on South Florida’s coral reefs. The Nature Conservancy coordinates the FRRP in conjunction with the State of Florida, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and a Steering Committee of reef managers, scientists, reef user-group representatives and other conservation groups. The project region includes shallow water coral reefs (spanning approximately 30,800 km2), colonized hardbottom, seagrass beds and mangrove communities. The focus of the FRRP has been on stony corals and shallow coral reefs.

The chronic stresses that challenge reefs of South Florida include climate change (including warming seas, coral bleaching, disease and acidification); eutrophication from inadequate wastewater and storm water management systems; coastal development; overfishing; destructive fishing practices; boat groundings; anchor damage and diver impacts. The FRRP region has experienced several significant disturbances during the last three decades, including the Diadema sea urchin die-off of 1984, the 1997-1998 and 2005 bleaching events, and hurricanes including four named storms in 2005. In early 2010, the region experienced a cold water event.

The goals of the FRRP are to improve understanding of reef health in the region, and to identify factors that influence the long-term resilience of corals, reefs and the entire marine ecosystem. With this knowledge in hand, coral reef managers and users can work toward resilience-based management strategies that maximize the benefits of healthy reefs, while seeking to improve conditions of less healthy reefs.

Meaghan Johnson of The Nature Conservancy performs reef surveys as part of the FRRP-DRM. © Erich Bartels

Meaghan Johnson of The Nature Conservancy performs reef surveys as part of the FRRP-DRM. © Erich Bartels

Actions Taken
A focal area of the program has been filling spatial and temporal information gaps for stony coral bleaching and other bioindicator monitoring data. The first step in this process was characterization of the >400 km long reef tract from Martin County to the Dry Tortugas into 22 unique reef zones. This created a spatial framework within which a Disturbance Response Monitoring (DRM) scheme could be developed. An online course was developed to train people to monitor corals before and during bleaching and other extreme events.

The DRM focused initially on coral bleaching, but is adaptable to detect and capture responses to other forms of disturbance. During the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill, the DRM was deployed to detect any detrimental effects from the oil spill to the reefs off Florida. Luckily, the reefs were spared any direct impacts.

FRRP surveyors. Photo © Meaghan Johnson/TNC

FRRP surveyors. © Meaghan Johnson/TNC

The Disturbance Response Monitoring scheme consists of a probabilistic sampling design and a stony coral condition monitoring protocol, implemented during peak thermal stress across the entire South Florida reef tract that extends from Martin County to the Dry Tortugas.

Since 2005, 1758 surveys have been completed by 13 teams from federal, state, and local government agencies, non-profit organizations, and universities during the summer months. Teams enter data on an online database and query through an online mapping service.

2010 Cold Water Event
Following extreme cold temperatures in early January 2010, the FRRP partners initiated a Disturbance Response Monitoring effort to determine the extent of the impact on stony corals in South Florida. Survey sites were randomly selected from a pool of 2005-2009 DRM sites. High resolution sea surface temperature data provided by the University of South Florida was used to further stratify the sample design between sites that experienced temperatures at or below the lethal limit for stony corals (59 degrees) and sites and that did not experience lethally cold conditions.

Recently dead Montastrea coral due to a cold water event. Photo © Meaghan Johnson/TNC

Recently dead Montastrea coral due to a cold water event. © Meaghan Johnson/TNC

In early 2010, 78 sites were surveyed across the Florida Reef Tract. The impact of the cold water was very spatially explicit. The areas that sustained the greatest impact were the inshore and mid channel zones from Summerland Key in the lower Keys through Biscayne National Park. Contrary to warm water induced coral bleaching events, the main effect on the stony corals was direct mortality with low levels of bleaching. Frequent observations on specific corals during the event showed that the corals would generally pale for a day, then die, with mortality occurring across all species.

How successful has it been?
From 2005 to 2013, 1758 surveys were completed. Results from these nine years of surveys show spatial and temporal patterns in coral bleaching and colony size frequency distribution, indicating that some reef areas or coral species may be more resilient to stress than others. Minor to moderate bleaching occurred within varying reef areas in 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. While the causes of this variability remain poorly quantified, projected increases in coral bleaching due to climate change makes identification of these resilient reef areas and species important for long-term coral reef conservation and future management strategies.

An analysis of the data revealed areas of the reef tract that contains higher abundance of corals, larger coral colonies, prevalence of bleaching and prevalence of coral disease. All of these layers combined give an indication of where the reefs are that have a higher resistance to bleaching and disease. Having this information for the entire Florida Reef Tract has allowed coral reef managers to incorporate this into their public processes to improve the management of Florida’s coral reef resources.

Figure 1: (C) Rob Van Woesik & S Burman

Figure 1: (C) Rob Van Woesik & S Burman

With this knowledge in hand, coral reef managers and users can work toward resilience-based management strategies that maximize the benefits of healthy reefs, while seeking to improve conditions of less healthy reefs. Ultimately, the FRRP seeks to improve ecological conditions of Florida’s reefs, economic sustainability of reef-dependent commercial enterprises, and continued recreational use of reef resources.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

  • Success of this project was highly dependent on the collaboration and contributions of many different agencies and institutions. The scale of the survey was so great that it would not have happened without collaboration. This has also resulted in a continued high level of commitment from the organizations involved.
  • Identifying supplementary funding to allow different organizations that had staff and expertise, but lacked the funds, was critical. This enabled a broad spectrum of institutional stakeholders to contribute.
  • In the first year, the team was able to demonstrate that an undertaking of this scale was possible and that there was a broad institutional commitment. The success of this pilot effort helped attract additional partners who had initially questioned the feasibility of conducting such large-scale surveys.
  • It was important to develop a simple protocol so that surveys could be completed rapidly during the period of peak bleaching occurrence; so that minimal training was required; and so that the resulting data set was consistent.
  • It was important at the beginning to agree on the scale, sampling goals, and protocol, so that the process was clear to participants.
  • It was important to continue surveys each year regardless of the level of coral bleaching to keep surveyors up to date with the methodology in case of unexpected disturbances (e.g. 2010 cold water event). This also keeps the survey work in team members’ annual workplans and budgets, facilitating their ongoing participation.

Funding Summary
Florida Department of Environmental Protection—Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—Coral Reef Conservation Program
Florida’s Wildlife Legacy Initiative—State Wildlife Grant
Darden Restaurants Foundation
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd—Ocean Fund
Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation
Peacock Foundation Inc.

Lead Organizations
The Nature Conservancy

Mote Marine Tropical Research Laboratory
Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Biscayne Bay Environmental Center
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
John Pennekamp State Park
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Office of Coastal & Aquatic Managed Areas
Southeast Florida Aquatic Preserves Field Office
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Division of Habitat and Species Conservation
South Regional Office
South Regional Laboratory
Broward County: Department of Planning and Environmental Protection
Miami Dade County
Dept. of Environmental Resources Mgmt.
Restoration and Enhancement Section
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences
Nova Southeastern University National Coral Reef Institute
Nova Southeastern Univ. Oceanographic Center
Florida Institute of Technology
National Park Service Biscayne National Park
National Park Service Dry Tortugas National Park

The Nature Conservancy’s Florida Reef Resilience Program
South Florida’s Bleaching Response Plan (pdf)

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Understanding coral reef resilience in Tobago

news-Understanding Coral Reef Resilience in TobagoJahson Berhane Alemu I (a participant in our 2010 Training of Trainers Workshop) and co-author Ysharda Clement recently published the paper “Mass Coral Bleaching in 2012 in the Southern Caribbean”. For 6 months, they monitored approximately 650 colonies (composed of 30 taxa) at three sites across Tobago during a bleaching event in 2010. The purpose of their research was to find nodes of reef resilience in Tobago by identifying taxa resilient to bleaching. We asked Jahson more about his research. In particular, we wanted to know how coral reef managers could learn from his experience. Here’s what he said:

How do you think your findings will influence coral reef management in Tobago?

Our findings now contribute to an evidence-based foundation, on which reef managers can make more informed decisions. Our findings have now been integrated into a Bleaching Response Plan, where a suite of taxa have been incorporated to determine the impact of bleaching and other anthropogenic impacts on reef health.

What most surprised you during the analysis of your research?

The wide variety of responses of taxa to the same stimulus. This will be the subject of future research.

What advice do you have for coral reef managers and practitioners who are trying to identify resilient reefs?

Reef resilience means a bunch of things and it’s evolving. My opinion is that you’re not going to figure it out in one assessment. (Well, maybe you can, and good luck to you!) But I’m no expert and I’ve just started. For me, having a clear personal understanding of what it means and how I intended to apply this knowledge for example through the development of a response plan and MPA selection was central in my approach. This study is but only one of several underway to better understand reef dynamics and the future of coral reefs in Tobago.

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