Assessing Coral Reef Resilience in Raja Ampat

Today’s guest blog from The Nature Conservancy scientist Sangeeta Mangubhai is part of a series chronicling a joint coral reef health monitoring trip in Raja Ampat, Indonesia with CI, The Nature Conservancy and WWF. Blogs from this assessment are being cross-posted on The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog.

I have been assessing the resilience of coral reefs in Raja Ampat since 2009, as part of a larger collaboration with Reef Check and the Wildlife Conservation Society in Indonesia. 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 recruit new corals and rebuild coral communities so that they can continue functioning, rather than becoming overgrown with algae and becoming less productive.

Managers and conservation practitioners continue to ask me why I bother studying reef resilience, if coral bleaching events are going to become more frequent and severe, and will likely cause massive changes to the reefs we know.

My answer is that even during massive coral bleaching events, there are some corals that survive the heat stress, recover quickly, and recolonize the reefs. Imagine if we could use basic ecological data collected as part of monitoring programs to better predict which reefs might bleach, which ones will survive, and which ones will bounce back and recover quickly.

If we had this information, wouldn’t we make sure that these reefs were adequately protected? And wouldn’t we reduce as much “man-made” stress as possible to give these more resilient reefs a stronger chance of survival? This is why I think understanding reef resilience is important.

During this trip, I am working with Dr. Helen Fox from WWF to gather information on the diversity of coral genera found on different reefs and their relative abundances. Reefs that are dominated by corals that easily bleach will likely suffer greater damage than those dominated by more less susceptible corals. The information we will collect also complements the monitoring data collected by The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International staff, and provides a more in-depth understanding of some of the ecological processes that might be operating on different reefs.

For the majority of reefs we are visiting, there is no information on the condition and health of the reefs in Raja Ampat that sit outside marine protected areas. We hope that this information can be used by the Raja Ampat government to help make decisions about how to manage the most biodiverse reefs on this planet.

Sangeeta Mangubhai is a marine scientist with The Nature Conservancy.