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Conservation and Reef Resilience

Coral reef conservation is a major part of reef management. Other than being one of the major goals of reef management, adequate conservation efforts are becoming increasingly important as coral reefs are met with more and worse threats. There are many different methods of conservation. The conventional understanding of the concept is setting up conservation zones or protected areas, which is to zone off certain valuable areas so as to protect them from, for example, overfishing. Examples of conservation zones are Marine Protected Areas and Marine Reserves.

How do protected areas conserve reefs?

Directly, protected areas conserve coral reefs by barring off unwanted disturbances. With legislation and enforcement, setting up effective conservation zones can help protect reefs from threats such as littering, certain types of pollution, and other human activities.

However, arguably more importantly, protected areas conserve reefs indirectly by enhancing reef resilience. Resilience is the ability of an ecosystem to bounce back from a disturbance without drastically changing.[1] In the long term, protected areas enhance reef resilience by preserving ecosystem complexity and maintaining the populations of important functional groups, such as herbivorous fish[2][3][4], which protects reefs from bleaching.[5]

Graphical representation of ecological resilience[6]

Utilising protected areas to enhance the resilience of reefs is especially important in the face of climate change, as the intangible threats introduced by the global phenomenon cannot be easily barred from valuable reef areas like human activities. For example, a zoned off area is still susceptible to changes in both air and water temperature, as well as amount of carbon in the air.[2] Moreover, it takes time for ecosystems to build resilience after being designated as a protected area, which can be as long as 20 years.[5] To effectively wield resilience from protected areas against climate change, swift action is needed.

Effectiveness of protected areas

Original human impact and recovery debt

The effectiveness of a protected area is highly dependent on the extent of original human impact on the reef. Different levels of original impact will affect how much or what aspects of the ecosystem can be recovered. Along the same vein, the level of original human impact will affect how long it takes for the reef to build resilience by recovering back to a healthy state.[7]

On the other hand, recovery debt prevents ecosystems from fully recovering to their original state, when considering the added dimension of time. There will always be some resource and value lost when a reef is disturbed, even if it is allowed time to recover afterwards, as it is unlikely to reach full recovery of all of its original functions. Even if a "full recovery" has occurred, some value is lost through the time it takes to recover.[8]

Graph showing the recovery debt of an ecosystem[8]

Problem of inadequate management

Without proper management and enforcement of these protected areas, they can effectively be rendered meaningless. Legislation is only as strong as it is enforced. Even if an area is designated as "protected", the reef within will be exposed to all kinds of disturbances so long as the protection is not enforced properly. For example, a lack of adequate control on ecotourism, or lack of adequate planning and foresight on how to carry out sustainable tourism, can lead to disastrous results and immensely lower the effectiveness of a protected area. In fact, it could introduce disturbances that it intended to block out in the first place, such as littering, to the protected area.[9]

Integrative efforts are needed

While protected areas are able to enhance reef resilience, it is in the long term. Unfortunately, climate change effects are striking right now, so designating protected areas now will not be able to equip reefs with resilience to fight the current disturbances and problems caused by climate change. To combat current issues effectively, traditional conservation methods need to be integrated with other, more active forms of conservation, such as restoration efforts like creating artificial reefs, settlement plates, and doing coral transplantation. Active conservation efforts will make these programs more effective as they tackle different aspects of the problem at once.[10] In fact, simply adding more flexibility into conservation zone programs or integrating protected areas with selective breeding programs can make these conservation efforts much more effective in the face of climate change[2]

Case study: Bonaire

Bonaire National Marine Park[11]

A study that spanned over 15 years found that a series of good management decisions in Bonaire, an island in the Caribbean, helped it build resilience that reefs nearby did not have.[12] Authorities in Bonaire had banned unsustainable fishing practices like spearfishing as early as 1971, as well as established the Bonaire National Marine Park (BNMP) in 1979 to protect reefs and its inhabitants. These measures together successfully avoided overfishing of herbivorous fish in Bonaire reefs, which led to comparatively abundant populations of parrotfish when compared to other Caribbean reefs. The abundant parrotfish population helped maintain a healthy, controlled macroalgal population through maintaining balanced trophic interactions, which in turn preserved the complexity of the reefs, as different roles and functional groups in the ecosystem was preserved. As a result, these healthy Bonaire reefs stood strong against frequent and disastrous storms induced by climate change. The reefs in Bonaire sustained less damage from these storms as compared to other nearby Caribbean reefs, at the same time recovered faster and better as well.

Parrotfish in the Bonaire National Marine Park[13]

It is clear that the good management decisions made decades ago has helped the Bonaire reefs not only stay healthy, but also preserve the important functional groups that build its resilience towards disturbance. In turn, this resilience helped the reef maintain a certain level of health and strength even in the face of disastrous storms. The conservation plan enforced by the Bonaire government years ago was effective in enhancing the reef resilience.


  1. [Holling, C S. “Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, vol. 4, no. 1, 1973, pp. 1–23., doi:10.1146/]
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 [Salm, Rodney V., et al. “Marine Protected Area Planning in a Changing Climate.” Coral Reefs and Climate Change: Science and Management Coastal and Estuarine Studies, 2006, pp. 207–221., doi:10.1029/61ce12.]
  3. [Bellwood, D. R., et al. “Confronting the Coral Reef Crisis.” Nature, vol. 429, no. 6994, 2004, pp. 827–833., doi:10.1038/nature02691.]
  4. [Cumming, Graeme S., et al. “New and Emerging Directions in Coral Reef Conservation.” Biological Conservation, vol. 241, 2020, p. 108372., doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108372.]
  5. 5.0 5.1 [Mellin, Camille, et al. “Marine Protected Areas Increase Resilience among Coral Reef Communities.” Ecology Letters, vol. 19, no. 6, Mar. 2016, pp. 629–637., doi:10.1111/ele.12598.]
  6. [“Resilience.” The Conservation of Change,]
  7. [Cinner, Joshua E et al. “Gravity of human impacts mediates coral reef conservation gains.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 115,27 (2018): E6116-E6125. doi:10.1073/pnas.1708001115]
  8. 8.0 8.1 [Moreno-Mateos, David, et al. “Anthropogenic Ecosystem Disturbance and the Recovery Debt.” Nature Communications, vol. 8, no. 1, 2017, doi:10.1038/ncomms14163.]
  9. [Perera, Nishanthi Marian. “Co-Existence of Coral Reef Conservation and Tourism at Pigeon Island National Park.” Journal of Tropical Forestry and Environment, vol. 6, no. 1, 2016, doi:10.31357/jtfe.v6i1.2614.]
  10. [Hughes, Terry P., et al. "Coral Reefs in the Anthropocene." Nature, vol. 546, no. 7656, 2017, pp. 82-90. ProQuest, doi:10.1038/nature22901.]
  11. [“Marine Park.” Bonaire Official Tourism Site,]
  12. [Steneck, Robert S., et al. “Managing Recovery Resilience in Coral Reefs Against Climate-Induced Bleaching and Hurricanes: A 15 Year Case Study From Bonaire, Dutch Caribbean.” Frontiers in Marine Science, vol. 6, July 2019, doi:10.3389/fmars.2019.00265.]
  13. [“Parrotfishes.” Stinapa Bonaire National Parks Foundation, 31 Aug. 2018,]
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