[Coral-List] A Reef Manager's Guide to Coral Bleaching

Heidi Schuttenberg heidi.schuttenberg at jcu.edu.au
Wed Nov 15 01:53:52 EST 2006

Dear James, Tom, and the Coral-list,

The future of coral reefs will be determined both by the rate & severity of 
climate change and by the effectiveness of management action to address 
local and regional stressors to reefs, with land-based sources of pollution, 
overfishing & destructive fishing, and recreational misuse or overuse 
typically being the most significant local/regional stressors.  “A Reef 
Manager’s Guide to Coral Bleaching”, the publication we developed with 
contributions from over 50 of the world’s most experienced coral reef 
scientists and managers, is very specific in highlighting the need for 
action on both fronts (page 10 in the publication; available for download at 

“Our understanding of mass bleaching suggests that the future condition of 
coral reefs will

be largely influenced by two factors: (1) the rate and extent of sea 
temperature increases9,13

and (2) the resilience of coral reef ecosystems11, 39, 40. The rate and 
extent of warming will

determine the window of opportunity for reefs to adjust through 

adaptation, and other ecological shifts. For example, fewer and less intense 

anomalies will reduce the frequency and severity of bleaching events, and 
slower rates of

warming will allow more time for reefs to recover between events that do 
occur. These

relationships mean that the effectiveness of broader efforts to address the 
rate and extent

of warming will have significant implications for local management 
initiatives28, 40.

However, such efforts are largely a matter for national and international 
policy and lie beyond the scope of this volume. The focus of this guide is 
on the second factor: What actions can local coral reef managers implement 
to restore and maintain the natural resilience of their coral reefs”


While “A Reef Manager’s Guide to Coral Bleaching” is aimed at supporting 
coral reef managers; your passion about the importance of also addressing 
climate change is well placed; although, of course, targeted at a different 
audience—i.e., policy-makers.  At ITMEMS, we hosted a theme on Climate 
Change and Building Resilience Into Coral Reef Management.  A key output of 
the theme was adoption of an ITMEMS statement on Coral Bleaching and Climate 
Change aimed at policy-makers.  The text of that statement, which includes 
specific targets for sea temperature increase and ocean carbonate ion 
concentrations, is provided at the bottom of this message.


Reef managers around the world are in an extremely difficult situation in 
responding to the threat that climate change and mass coral bleaching 
present to the resources under their stewardship—a threat that is beyond 
their control.  The suggestion that local reef management no longer matters 
given the looming threat of climate change is extremely damaging to their 
efforts and is not supported by the best available science.  Supporting 
coral reef resilience as a strategy for responding to this situation is 
proving useful to coral reef managers around the world.  We highlight case 
studies from Palau, the Meso-American Reef, Seychelles, and American Samoa 
in “A Reef Manager’s Guide to Coral Bleaching.”

Managing reefs for resilience means continuing on-going efforts to promote 
the conditions that allow coral reefs to recover from disturbance events, 
most importantly having good water quality and a strong herbivory function. 
It also suggests other strategies:

·  Managing coral reefs not only to maintain their current condition (which 
is unlikely given climate change projections), but to maximize their ability 
to recover from disturbance events

·  Measuring coral reef condition in terms of ability to be resilient rather 
than ability to maintain current state.

·  Managing with an expectation of unpredictable surprises, rather than 
assuming we have a clear idea of what the future holds under various 
management regimes

·  Identifying coral reef areas that may be more likely to be resilient to 
mass coral bleaching and providing such “lucky” areas with extra management 


When managers are able to respond effectively during mass bleaching events 
it increases awareness about coral reefs, climate change, and local threats 
to reefs among key constituencies of policy-makers and stakeholders.  Mass 
bleaching events are dramatic, highly visual, and generally considered 
news-worthy by the media.  When managers are able to communicate the 
ecological and socio-economic impacts of these events, they are able to 
enhance support for taking local management actions and for addressing 
climate change.

Thank you for highlighting these critical issues on the coral-list.  The 
thoughtful discussions you’ve kicked off have gotten to the core of many 
troubling questions facing coral reef managers:

·  Can reef manager’s take meaningful action in response to climate change?

·  What does it mean to manage reefs for resilience?

·  How can reef scientists and managers influence the policy forums 
negotiating climate change?

There has been thousands of hours of effort go into this document, 
contributed by over 50 individuals who have worked, mostly in their own 
time, out of a passion for coral reefs and a commitment to developing 
proactive and practicable responses to coral bleaching and climate change. A 
driving realisation for many of us has been this: even worse than coral 
reefs being destroyed by rampant climate change would be a future where 
humanity does manage to stabilise climate at a point that permits the 
survival of coral reef ecosystems, but that reefs do not persist because 
their resilience (capacity to recover or adjust, in this context) was 
fatally compromised as a result of ineffectual local management. Coral 
bleaching and climate change do not make redundant the multitude of other 
threats that reefs are under, nor the efforts that manager’s have been 
pitching themselves at for the last decade or two. Quite the opposite: 
climate change makes these issues a matter of life and death for coral reef 
ecosystems like never before. For these reasons, climate change provides an 
opportunity to increase the support for and capacity of coral reef managers 
to make effective progress, once and for all, on those stresses that are 
amenable to local management efforts. Call us optimists – and you will be 

A Reef Manager’s Guide takes a first stab at proposing a framework for 
advancing management and science on the most challenging problem for coral 
reefs today.  It also creates an opportunity for coral reef managers to 
generate their own, compelling stories about the plight of their reefs, 
which can form a powerful impetus for policy responses to climate change. We 
look forward to more feedback from coral reef managers as they field test 
the strategies outlined in the Guide and the broader community is able to 
learn from this evolving practical experience.

Hard copies of A Reef Manager’s Guide are available for free by contacting 
the relevant distribution node or the authors:

Asia-Pacific region: info at gbrmpa.gov.au

Americas: BleachingGuide at noaa.gov

Indian Ocean/Europe: james.oliver at iucn.org

With best regards,

Heidi Schuttenberg and Paul Marshall

heidi.schuttenberg at jcu.edu.au

p.marshall at gbrmpa.gov.au

ITMEMS 3 statement on

Coral reefs and climate change

There is no longer any doubt that the earth’s climate is changing, causing 
rapidly warming seas and ocean acidification.  Warming seas are causing 
increased mass coral bleaching and mortality, with little evidence that 
corals and their symbionts can evolve fast enough to keep pace.   In 
addition to these impacts, there is now strong evidence that acidifying seas 
are reducing calcification rates.  Other consequences, such as rapid sea 
level rise and increased frequency and intensity of tropical storms, and 
impacts on other organisms and ecosystems, further emphasize the urgent need 
to limit the rate and extent of global climate change.

Projected changes in temperature and ocean acidity pose significant problems 
for reef-building corals.  As reef-building corals build the habitat and 
ecosystem in which many tens of thousands of organisms live, these changes 
in global climate are causing major changes to the biodiversity of the 
ocean.  Because coral reefs directly support at least 100 million people and 
multi-billion dollar industries, like tourism and fisheries, these impacts 
will cause significant socio-economic impacts and threaten food security in 
developing nations.

Two strategies must be implemented to mitigate the impacts of climate change 
to coral reefs.  The first is to limit climate change. The second is to 
build the resilience of tropical marine ecosystems and communities to 
maximize their ability to resist and recover from impacts such as mass coral 
bleaching. Within this context our ability to effectively reduce other 
stressors will determine the future of coral reefs.

The actions required to support reef resilience to climate change are:

  1.. Limit climate change to ensure that further increases in sea 
temperature are limited to 2oC above pre-industrial levels and ocean 
carbonate ion concentrations do not fall below 200 μmol. kg-1.
  2.. Recognise that mass coral bleaching will have similar social and 
economic consequences as other environmental disasters such as oil spills 
and droughts and will require similar responses.
  3.. Facilitate and finance actions to increase resilience of coral reef 
social-ecological systems, particularly through marine management area 
networks comprising adequate areas of coral reefs and associated habitats in 
non-extraction zones, protection of water quality and herbivore populations, 
and adaptive governance.
  4.. Facilitate and finance assessments of risk and vulnerability of coral 
reefs to climate change.
  5.. Facilitate and finance the development and implementation of coral 
bleaching response programs, including contingency funding.
  6.. Create incentives for development of partnerships for adaptation.
  7.. Increase investments in targeted messages to accelerate adaptation to 
climate change.
  8.. Invest in village-to-global education and communication for climate 
adaptation that will integrate traditional and scientific knowledge into 
implementation of adaptation strategies for coral reefs around the world.

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