Clouds of fusiliers at Misool reefs

Note: the following post from Sangeeta Mangubhai (@smangubhai) is the latest in a series chronicling the ongoing expedition to the Raja Ampat Islands. Read more here.

I am often asked to explain how climate change affects our work with Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Why do we invest time and money in tropical MPAs if climate change impacts like coral bleaching events and ocean acidification are likely to become even more severe?

It’s true that periods of unusually warm ocean temperatures have already caused mass coral bleaching like we witnessed during the global bleaching event recorded in 1998 that is estimated to have killed 16 percent of the world’s reefs. But we know that many coral reefs survived this bleaching event. Some reefs remained healthy while others that bleached were able to recover quickly once the temperatures cooled again. We call these reefs “resilient.” Resilience is the ability of an ecosystem to absorb shock and regenerate after natural and human-induced disturbances. For coral reefs, this means being able to withstand warmer-than-normal temperatures or rebuild healthy communities after sustaining damage.

Now imagine this — what if you could use basic ecological data to predict which reefs might not bleach, or might recover quickly from future bleaching events. And what if you could then use this information to ensure these areas are included in MPAs?

After this expedition, we’ll be able to do both those things. We are now collecting data from reefs around Misool to identify sites that are likely to be more resilient to climate change impacts. We will then provide this information to managers who are currently designing a zoning plan for Misool that will include areas for protection in no-take zones, where fishing and other activities are prohibited. In this way, we can address climate change in our management of coral reefs.

Joanne Wilson surveying for coral diseases

Working with our partners Wildlife Conservation Society and Reef Check Indonesia, the Conservancy has been trialing an IUCN reef resilience assessment method in a number of MPAs across Indonesia since 2009. The assessment involves counting the number of new coral recruits, noting any bleaching or coral disease, and counting the number of fish that eat algae — the “lawnmowers” of the reef. We also record if there are any other stresses to the reef — like pollution, overfishing, anchor damage or sedimentation — because we know these factors are also important for coral reef resilience.

Earlier this year, we worked with experts from the University of Melbourne and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to help translate the scientific data we’ve collected into simple and clear messages for MPA managers. Using the framework we developed, we can identify the most resilient reefs and the sites that have human-induced stresses that are affecting the reefs and their resilience.

On this trip, we will complete the resilience assessments we started in 2009, and this time we hope to survey some really unusual coral reef habitats that we have not visited before. We will dive in lagoons and channels deep in the limestone karst chain, as well as seamounts that rise up from the great ocean depths. We hope by studying these different types of reefs that we will be even better equipped to show that protecting tropical reefs is both possible and important.

Explore further coverage of this expedition on nature.org and learn more about the Conservancy’s involvement in the game-changing Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security.

(First image: Clouds of fusiliers at Misool reefs; First image credit: TNC. Second image: Joanne Wilson examines reefs at Jef Pele for signs of disease. Second image credit: TNC.

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