People and ecosystems

Understanding of the links between coral reef ecosystems, the goods and services they provide to people, and the wellbeing of human societies.


Ecosystem dynamics: past, present and future

Examining the multi-scale dynamics of reefs, from population dynamics to macroevolution


Responding to a changing world

Advancing the fundamental understanding of the key processes underpinning reef resilience.

Coral Bleaching

Coral Bleaching

Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au

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A new study on the effects of climate change in five tropical countries has found fisheries are in more trouble than agriculture, and poor people are in the most danger.

Distinguished Professor Joshua Cinner from James Cook University’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies led the study. He said tropical regions are expected to suffer losses in both fisheries and agriculture as the effects of climate change increasingly make themselves felt.

“For example, by 2100 tropical areas could lose up to 200 suitable plant growing days per year due to climate change. Likewise, in some tropical areas fishable biomass in the ocean could drop by up to 40 per cent,” said Professor Cinner.

“Yet assessments of climate change impacts and the policy prescriptions that come from them rarely consider changes to agriculture and fisheries simultaneously, and those that do are at the national scale.

“These larger-scale assessments gloss over how households and even entire communities will be affected by climate change.”

Prof Cinner led a team of 28 researchers who investigated the potential impacts of climate change on agriculture and fisheries for 72 coastal communities across Indonesia, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, and Tanzania.

The authors integrated socioeconomic surveys from over 3,000 households with model projections of losses to crop yield and fisheries catch under a high emissions scenario (SSP 5–8.5) and a low emissions scenario (SSP 1–2.6).

They found that, although different communities vary in how vulnerable they are both within and across countries, the communities with lower socioeconomic status are particularly exposed to severe impacts and have higher dependence on natural resources, so these impacts will hit harder.

“We found that the potential losses are expected to be higher in the fisheries sector than agriculture overall, but the big problem is that two thirds of the communities we studied will experience potential losses to both fisheries and agriculture simultaneously, under a high emissions scenario,” said Professor Cinner.

“Our in-depth surveys revealed that many people have limited opportunity to adapt to changes by switching livelihoods between food production sectors.

“But climate change mitigation – reducing greenhouse gas emissions – could reduce the proportion of places facing that double burden by half.

It really does show how much the lives of very many ordinary people hinge on decisions they have no control over and highlights the moral responsibilities that decision makers have towards them,” said Professor Cinner.


Cinner JE, Caldwell IR, Thiault L, et al. 2022. ‘Potential impacts of climate change on agriculture and fisheries production in 72 tropical coastal communities’. Nature Communications. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-30991-4


Professor Joshua E. Cinner (Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (0) 747 816 751
E: joshua.cinner@jcu.edu.au

James Cook University researchers have found brightly coloured fish are becoming increasingly rare as coral declines, with the phenomenon likely to get worse in the future.

Christopher Hemingson, a recent PhD graduate at JCU’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, led the research. He said over the past 30 years, human-induced stressors have caused profound changes to reefs – typically from the loss of corals.

“Reefs these days are becoming increasingly defined by non-coral substrates, especially turf algae. We wanted to investigate what effect this had on the kind of brightly-coloured fish people like and that attract tourists and visitors,” said Dr Hemingson.

The scientists used a new community-level measure of fish colouration and then explored the links between fish community colouration and the environment.

“We found that as the cover of structurally complex corals increases on a reef, so does the diversity and range of colours present on fishes living in and around them. But, as the cover of turf algae and dead coral rubble increases, the diversity of colours declines to a more generalised, uniform appearance,” said Dr Hemingson.

He said it was notable that fish community colouration declined significantly in the years following the 1998 global coral bleaching event – likely driven by the loss of branching corals.

“We found the structure of the sea floor appears to be very important in shaping fish colouration; more so than its composition (that is, its live coral cover). Having places to hide from predators may have allowed reef fishes to evolve unique colourations due to a reduced reliance on camouflage to avoid being eaten.

“Unfortunately, the types of corals most capable of surviving the immediate impacts of climate change (massive and boulder corals) are unlikely to provide these refuges. Fish communities on future reefs may very well be a duller version of their previous configurations, even if coral cover remains high,” said Dr Hemingson.

He said the loss of colourful fishes may not have a huge impact if assessing reefs through a strictly functional or ecological lens.

“But in a human context, loss of these colourful species may trigger a broad range of human responses, including grief.”



Hemingson CR, Mihalitsis M, Bellwood DR 2022. ‘Are fish communities on coral reefs becoming less colourful?’. Global Change Biology. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.16095


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Dr. Christopher Hemingson (Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (0) 450 848 901
E: christopher.hemingson@my.jcu.edu.au

Researchers working with stakeholders in the Great Barrier Reef region have come up with ideas on how groups responsible for looking after the reef can operate more effectively when the next bleaching event arrives.

Dr Michele Barnes is a Senior Research Fellow at James Cook University’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. She said in 2016 and 2017 the reef experienced unprecedented back-to-back mass coral bleaching – challenging its guardians’ abilities to protect it.

“Our collaborative research was squarely aimed at improving governance responses to extreme climate events in the GBR region and potentially other regions around the world,” said Dr Barnes.

The team interviewed 32 key individuals representing government, non-profits, research institutions, and the tourism, fishing, and aquaculture industries. The organisations deal with coral health, water quality, tourism and fishing.

“We wanted to understand catalysts and barriers to actions being taken across the region in response to coral bleaching, and participants’ hopes for future action,” said Dr Barnes.

The researchers found five major categories of activity for those involved in the wake of coral bleaching: assessing the scale and extent of bleaching, sharing information, communicating bleaching to the public, building local resilience, and addressing global threats.

“These actions were helped and hindered by a range of factors. For instance, some people were hindered in responding because information on the bleaching was scattered and not well integrated, there were conflicts and a lack of respect across certain groups, and community involvement was lacking in some cases” said co-author Amber Datta, a PhD candidate based at James Cook University and the University of Montana.

Working with a group of local stakeholders in the Great Barrier Reef, the team identified several ways to improve responses to future crises. These improvements include improving coordination, strengthening relationships between groups, and empowering and recognizing Traditional Owners as leaders of their Sea Country rather than stakeholders (see attached graphic for more details).

Dr. Barnes said “The new approaches should help to improve responses to future crisis events, but effective responses will depend on the willingness of diverse groups to negotiate a shared path forward, and ultimately on international and national commitments to address the root cause of climate change”.


Barnes M.L., Datta A., Morris S., Zethoven I.  2022. ‘Navigating climate crises in the Great Barrier Reef’. Global Environmental Change. DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2022.102494


Dr Michele Barnes (Townsville, AEST)

M: +61 (0)408 677 570
E: michele.barnes@jcu.edu.au

Amber Datta (Townsville, AEST)
M (AU): +61 (0)456 426 248
E: amber.datta@my.jcu.edu.au

A new study has delivered a stark warning about the impacts of urban growth on the world’s coral reefs.

As coastal developments expand at pace around the world, a year-long study of coral on a reef close to a rapidly growing urban centre in the Middle East has found they have become severely disturbed at the molecular level – with implications for all such corals worldwide.

Professor David Miller is a geneticist at James Cook University’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE). He said coral reefs are in global decline due to climate change and anthropogenic influences.

“Near coastal cities or other densely populated areas, coral reefs face a range of challenges in addition to that of climate change. To investigate the impacts of urban proximity on corals, we conducted a year-long study in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea, comparing corals close to an urban area to corals from a near-by non-urban area,” said Professor Miller.

He said the Gulf of Aqaba is an ideal study site because its corals have a remarkable level of thermal tolerance. This means scientists can isolate the effects of urban environments such as unpredictable and fluctuating levels of nutrients, hormone mimics and other organic contaminants, local pollution and chronic exposure to noise and light pollution, against a background of relatively limited potential impacts of ocean warming caused by climate change.

“Essentially, we found that in the area close to urban development, every natural biological rhythm is messed up in the coral host, that the algal symbionts are seriously under-performing and that the microbiome is also out of kilter. These corals are comprehensively disturbed, despite appearances,” said Professor Miller.

He said for instance, bacteria on the coral peaked at different moon-phases between the urban and non-urban coral, while reproductive processes, which are all aligned with the moon phase, were wiped out in the urban corals.

“This study is significant because while a lot of work had previously been done on the impacts of individual stressors on corals, no one had previously looked at how corals in the wild react to real-world complex combinations of stressors,” said Dr. Inga Steindal, also of the Coral CoE.

She said the findings were alarming, given the recent and planned extensions of urban centres near tropical coastlines.

There has been continuous growth of cities such as Jakarta, Singapore and Hong Kong, but also major new developments have occurred or are planned that are likely to directly impact coral reefs in the near future. The population of the Chinese coastal city of Shenzhen alone has grown from less than a million in 1990 to more than 12.5 million in 2021.

“With that kind of expansion and with more to come, things don’t look too good for the future of corals in those regions,” said Professor Miller.


Rosenberg Y., Blecher N.S., Lalzar M., Yam R., Shemesh A., Alon S., Perna G., Cardenas A., Voolstra C.R., Miller D.J., Levy O.  2022. ‘Urbanisation comprehensively impairs rhythms in coral holobionts’. Global Change Biology. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.16144


Professor David Miller (Townsville, AEST)

M: +61 (0)419 671 768
E: david.miller@jcu.edu.au

Dr. Inga Steindal (Townsville, AEST)
M: +61 (0)481 300 921
E: inga.steindal@jcu.edu.au

Alarming new research shows global warming of 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial levels will be catastrophic for almost all coral reefs – including those once thought of as refuges.

Associate Professor Scott Heron from James Cook University was part of the study. He said the team of scientists used the latest generation of climate model projections to predict future thermal exposure of shallow-water coral reefs around the globe.

“We identified thermal refuges – places where it’s thought coral reefs have a good chance of surviving warming oceans due to things like consistent upwelling of cool deep waters – at a resolution of only 1 km,” said Dr Heron.

He said the scientists found that the refuges will provide almost no escape – only 0.2%, or one fifth of one percent, of coral reefs globally are projected to avoid frequent bleaching-level heat stress under a 1.5°C climate warming scenario.

“This means corals worldwide are at even greater risk from climate change than previously thought, especially as limiting warming to 1.5°C is looking increasingly unlikely,” said Dr Heron.

He said coral recovery following extensive thermal stress-induced mortality depends on local conditions, but science indicates it requires at least 10 years for coral communities to re-establish ecosystem functions.

“Most coral reefs won’t have time to recover between bleaching events,” said Dr Heron.

Though small in number, there are some reef locations that may persist due to other factors.

“In addition to locations where heat exposure events will be less frequent, like in French Polynesia and southern Indonesia, there are other ‘hope sites’ that have high variability in temperatures. Corals in these locations, such as the Eastern Pacific, may be better able to cope with temperature extremes,” said Adele Dixon, lead author of the study from the University of Leeds in the UK.

Dr Heron added that the scientists wanted to highlight that climate change effects are already impacting ecosystems in many areas of the world and will worsen, even at the 1.5°C of global warming set as a target in international agreements. This includes potential impacts of heat stress this year on the Great Barrier Reef and off Western Australia.

“This analysis confirms that significant action on greenhouse gas emissions is urgent and needed this decade. We also need to ramp up local actions to help reefs survive through already predicted impacts. Promoting reef resilience, adaptation to higher temperatures and facilitating migration will be vital strategies to secure their survival,” said Dr Heron.


Dixon A.M., Forster P.M., Heron S.F., Stoner A.M.K., Beger M. 2022. ‘Future loss of local-scale thermal refugia in coral reef ecosystems’. PLOS Climate. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pclm.0000004


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Associate Professor Scott Heron (Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (0)404 893 420
E: scott.heron@jcu.edu.au

A new study suggests sharks will need to adapt, move or die as climate change could soon render their nurseries uninhabitable.

Baby sharks rely on coastal nursery-like spaces such as shallow lagoons and mangroves for food as well as protection from predators. But they also need to be robust enough to cope with the challenging conditions these environments throw at them—conditions that may soon become unbearable in a warming world.

“In shallow coastal habitats, baby sharks already have to tolerate the strain of high temperatures,” said the study’s lead author Dr Ian Bouyoucos, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU).

“The temperatures can also fluctuate dramatically on a daily basis. It’s the constant change that makes these environments ‘extreme’.”

Dr Bouyoucos said nursery areas are important for sustaining the local shark populations by serving as ‘safe havens’ for newborns and juveniles to learn critical survival and foraging skills. But the impacts of climate change are increasingly becoming a problem for their survival.

“We don’t know if sharks can adapt and can continue to use these important habitats early in life, or whether they will be able to find new nurseries, or whether populations will die off” he said.

Co-author Associate Professor Jodie Rummer, also from Coral CoE at JCU, says this is a case of adapt, move or die.

“Heatwaves due to climate change are becoming more frequent and severe, and lasting longer with climate change,” Dr Rummer said.

She said more work is needed to find current tolerance limits for newborn sharks to survive and thrive in shallow, warm nursery habitats.

“The temperature thresholds that limit their performance today can help us predict how future populations might fare as the waters continue to warm with climate change,” she said.

“But adaptation—changes in DNA over generations to accommodate new conditions—may not be possible. This is because sharks are slow to reach sexual maturity compared to most other fishes and do not reproduce as often or have as many babies. Therefore, not enough generations can go by fast enough to keep pace with the rate at which we—humans—are changing their habitats.”

Dr Rummer said there was a possibility newborn sharks could move to new nursery-like areas that are not as warm.

“Or, we might just see these shark populations disappear,” she said.

“This is a real risk. We know sharks are tolerating a lot already. The oceans, their habitats, are getting warmer, lower in oxygen, and lower in pH with climate change.”

As predators, sharks are essential for healthy ocean ecosystems. Without predators, whole ecosystems can collapse.

“We need to keep studying and protecting sharks,” Dr Bouyoucos said.

“Our sharks, ecosystems, and our futures all depend on us urgently cutting greenhouse gas emissions to curb climate change.”


Bouyoucos I, Simpfendorfer C, Planes S, Schwieterman G, Weideli O, Rummer J. 2022. ‘Thermally insensitive physiological performance allows neonatal sharks to use coastal habitats as nursery areas’. Marine Ecology Progress Series. DOI: 10.3354/meps13941


A selection of images can be used for media stories with credit to the photographer as stated in the file name. Please note these are for single use with this story only, not for any other story. No archival permissions are granted.


Ian Bouyoucos (Manitoba, CST)
E: ian.bouyoucos@umanitoba.ca

Jodie Rummer (Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (0)439 166 171
E: jodie.rummer@jcu.edu.au

Scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) this week received two prestigious awards for their interdisciplinary work on solving environmental problems.

The Australian Academy of Social Sciences announced Dr Michele Barnes as the winner of their Paul Bourke Award for Early Career Research, and The Australian Academy of Science announced Dr Brock Bergseth as the winner of a Max Day Environmental Science Fellowship Award.

Dr Michele Barnes

Dr Michele Barnes’ work takes a human approach to solving environmental problems. When addressing and solving these problems, she says including the relationships that bind people to each other and the environment is key.

“The relationships we have with others influence our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours,” Dr Barnes said.

“Our social networks contribute to—and can potentially help solve—complex environmental problems.”

As an example, she has shown that stronger communication networks between tuna fishers in the Pacific could have prevented the accidental catch of more than 46,000 sharks over a five-year period.

“Most, if not all, environmental problems are fundamentally driven by people and the interactions people have with nature,” Dr Barnes said.

Dr. Barnes’ research has also shown that social networks play a critical role in helping people adapt to climate change. This work is crucial as climate change and its impacts—including droughts, floods, heatwaves, and sea-level rise—continue to threaten the planet’s long-term viability as a suitable habitat for people and other species.

“A greater understanding of social networks sheds light on the critical aspects of the human side of environmental problems,” Dr Barnes said.

“My research is helping change the way we think about these problems and highlights new potential levers to solve them.”

Dr Brock Bergseth

Dr Bergseth combines biological, ecological and behavioural science to understand the nature and implications of human interactions with marine ecosystems. His current research seeks to understand and influence human behaviour to bolster the effectiveness of conservation programs, such as reducing poaching and illegal fishing in marine protected areas (MPAs).

The Academy’s selection committee was captivated by Dr Bergseth’s research proposal, which showed an impressive understanding of the value of combining social and biological sciences as an interdisciplinary approach.

“The complex problems we are facing in conservation today are hard to understand and address using a single approach,” Dr Bergseth said.

“These issues can only be tackled through bespoke interventions that use tools and approaches from a wide range of science disciplines.”

In addition to his position at Coral CoE, Dr Bergseth is also a visiting scholar at Oxford University. He is currently designing social norms-based behavioural interventions to reduce illegal fishing in MPAs.

The Paul Bourke Awards for Early Career Research are annual awards named in honour of the Academy’s past president Paul Francis Bourke (1938–1999) who was one of the first Australian historians to obtain American style doctoral training. The awards honour Australians in the early part of their career who have achieved excellence in scholarship in one or more fields of the social sciences. Four Paul Bourke Award recipients are selected each year by members of the Academy’s Panel Committees. Dr. Barnes was unanimously selected as this year’s recipient for Panel A, which covers the disciplines of Anthropology, Demography, Geography, Linguistics, Sociology, and Management. More information: https://socialsciences.org.au/awards/

The Max Day Environmental Science Fellowship Award is an annual award which aims to assist early career researchers in the environmental field. The Academy award is named in honour of the late Dr Max Day AO FAA who was one of the longest serving Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science. Max Day spent his career championing a wide range of the biological sciences and conservation, as well as helping other scientists, so the award is specifically aimed at assisting environmental researchers. More information: https://www.science.org.au/news-and-events/news-and-media-releases/max-day-awardees-aim-safeguard-culture-and-change-behaviours


Michele Barnes (Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (0)408 677 570
E: michele.barnes@jcu.edu.au

Brock Bergseth (London, GMT. Available 0600–1000AEDT)
E: brock.bergseth@jcu.edu.au
Skype: @Brock.Bergseth


Melissa Lyne / Coral CoE (Sydney, AEDT)
P: +61 (0)415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

Researchers have found a new way to distinguish and identify coral species—providing crucial information to help manage coral reefs in a warming world.

Co-author Professor Andrew Baird from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU) said there’s more to identifying coral than meets the eye. He said the new results challenge a widely held assumption that many similar-looking species cross-breed, or hybridise.

“The accurate identification of a species is the single most important aspect of all biology—in particular, for conservation and management,” Prof Baird said.

“The difference between coral species depends on a lot more than what they look like. Yet, that is traditionally how they’ve been classified, without considering how they breed, or their DNA.”

He said corals have spectacularly variable shapes and forms, which make them difficult to identify. But it can be done, “if you know your animals and use the correct tools.”

Prof Baird said the assumption of shape variations being due to hybridisation emerged because many coral species often spawn together, releasing eggs and sperm en masse. And many colonies are intermediate in shape between one species and another—in the same way that a mule is intermediate in shape between a horse and a donkey, as an actual hybrid species of the two.

The modern tools for species identification include molecular approaches—using DNA markers to reconstruct the genetic ancestry of an individual with others of the same species. However, even these present problems for corals.

“The standard DNA markers that work for distinguishing species in other animal groups are frustratingly unhelpful for delineating coral species or reconstructing their evolutionary history,” said Dr Peter Cowman, a co-author of the study from Coral CoE at JCU and Senior Curator of Biosystematics at the Queensland Museum.

In the study, the authors closely examined the table corals of Okinawa, Japan. These table corals are difficult to tell apart, a “taxonomic nightmare”, and scientists had previously thought that one of these table species was a hybrid of the other two.

“Using novel genetic techniques, as well as breeding trials, we found they were all separate species that did not breed with each other,” said the study’s lead author Catalina Ramírez-Portilla, a PhD candidate from Université libre de Bruxelles.

Coauthor Dr Jean-Francois Flot, also from Université libre de Bruxelles, and the Interuniversity Institute of Bioinformatics in Brussels, says to date there are only a handful of confirmed cases of coral hybridisation in the wild.

“Many intermediate forms, which were originally thought to be hybrids, are actually ‘good species’.” Dr Jean-Francois Flot said.

“This also means that these species instead probably have a much more limited range of where they are found, with much smaller population sizes than previously thought,” he said. “Which makes them far more vulnerable to threats, and they should have a far greater conservation status.”

Dr Saki Harii from Sesoko Station, Tropical Biosphere Research Center, University of the Ryukyus said, “Shallow corals around Sesoko Island have been studied for decades by researchers from all over the world. Solving species identity issues is crucial to allow for reliable comparisons among these studies.”

The authors say the findings have important implications for current plans to rescue reefs from global warming by seeding affected reefs with heat-tolerant individuals from distant locations.

“It is absolutely critical to use and compare data from the correct species before we move them around or attempt to manipulate their genetics,” they said.

“More basic biology is the key to effective conservation and management rather than blue sky projects that are unlikely to work and come with substantial risks.”




Ramírez-Portilla C, Baird A, Cowman P, Quattrini A, Harii S, Sinniger F, Flot J. (2021). ‘Solving the Coral Species Delimitation Conundrum’. Systematic Biology. DOI: 10.1093/sysbio/syab077


A selection of images can be used for media stories with credit to the photographer as stated in the image caption. Please note these are for single use with this story only, not for any other story. No archival permissions are granted.


Andrew Baird (Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (0)400 289 770
E: andrew.baird@jcu.edu.au

Peter Cowman (Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (0)490 231 223
E: peter.cowman@qm.qld.gov.au

Catalina Ramírez-Portilla (Colombia)
E: catalina.rzpl@gmail.com

Jean-Francois Flot (Belgium)
E: jflot@ulb.ac.be

Saki Harii (Japan)
E: sharii@lab.u-ryukyu.ac.jp


Melissa Lyne/ Coral CoE at JCU (Sydney, AEDT)
P: +61 (0)415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

A new study reveals the impacts of multiple climate extremes on coral reefs over the past three decades, with only 2% of the Great Barrier Reef escaping bleaching in that time.

Lead author Professor Terry Hughes from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU) said the frequency, intensity and scale of climate extremes is changing rapidly due to global warming—and this includes the record-breaking marine heatwaves that cause corals to bleach and die.

“We no longer have the luxury of studying individual climate-related events that were once unprecedented or very rare,” Prof Hughes said.

“Instead, as the world gets hotter, we have to understand the effects of sequences of rapid-fire catastrophes, as well as their combined impacts.”

The study shows only 2% of the Great Barrier Reef has escaped bleaching since the first event in 1998, then the world’s hottest year on record. Bleaching is a stress response by overheated corals during heatwaves, where they lose their colour and many struggle to survive. Eighty percent of reefs bleached severely in 2016, 2017 and 2020.

“Five bouts of mass bleaching since 1998 have turned the Great Barrier Reef into a checkerboard of reefs with very different recent histories, ranging from 2% of reefs that have escaped bleaching altogether, to 80% that have now bleached severely at least once since 2016,” Prof Hughes said.

The Great Barrier Reef is comprised of more than 3,000 individual reefs stretching for 2,300km. The ecosystem supports 65,000 jobs in reef tourism. Globally, 100s of millions of people depend on the survival of coral reefs for their livelihoods and food security.

To better predict how coral reefs will fare under future climate change, Prof Hughes calls for a better understanding of compounding impacts: multiple, climate-driven disturbances that interact with each other over time and space, generating combined effects that cannot be predicted from single events alone.

“For the first time, in 2020, we saw severe bleaching across the whole length of the Reef—in parts of the northern, central and especially the southern region,” Prof Hughes said.

But, he added, each bleaching event has a different geographic footprint. The northern Reef escaped damage in 1998 and 2002 before being the worst-affected region in 2016. The south escaped in 2016 and 2017.

Drawing upon satellite data, the authors of the study also measured the duration and intensity of heat stress the Reef was exposed to each summer, to explain why different parts were affected in each event.

“Heat stress is a very precise predictor of the severity of bleaching every year,” said coauthor Dr Mark Eakin, formerly of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The scientists found the responses to extreme heat depended on the recent history of bleaching. In 2002 and 2017, it took more heat to reach similar levels of bleaching to those in 1998 and 2016.

“To our surprise, we found the threshold for bleaching was much higher on reefs that had experienced an earlier episode of heat stress,” Dr Eakin said.

“Consequently, the most vulnerable reefs each year were the naïve ones that had not bleached recently.”

Co-author Professor Sean Connolly from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute said when pairs of successive bleaching episodes were only one to three years apart, as they have been recently, the earlier event may have hardened affected areas to further impacts.

“But,” he cautioned, “more frequent, severe bleaching events will only undermine the resilience of coral reef ecosystems. Corals still need time to recover before another round of heat stress so they can make babies that will disperse, settle and recover the depleted parts of the Reef.”

“Action to curb climate change is crucial.”

“Ironically, the publication of our study coincides with the COP26 meeting in Glasgow,” Prof Hughes said.

“A drastic cut in greenhouse gas emissions by all countries is vital for the future of corals reefs, and for the 100s of millions of people who depend on them.”



Hughes T, Kerry J, Connolly S, Álvarez-Romero J, Eakin M, Heron S, Gonzalez M, Moneghetti J. (2021). ‘Emergent properties in the responses of tropical corals to recurrent climate extremes’. Current Biology. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.10.046


A selection of images can be used for media stories with credit to the photographer as stated in the image caption. Please note these are for single use with this story only, not for any other story. No archival permissions are granted.


Terry Hughes (Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (0)400 720 164
E: terry.hughes@jcu.edu.au

Mark Eakin (Maryland, EDT)
P: +1 301 502 8608

Sean Connolly (Panama, EST)
P: +507 6287 6944
E: ConnollyS@si.edu


Melissa Lyne / Coral CoE (Sydney, AEDT)
P: +61 (0)415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

A new study has found ocean plankton and their predators are responsible for sparking ‘sweet spots’ of abundant fish in tropical coral reefs. These areas will become more important to fishers as reefs around the world continue to degrade.

The study’s lead author Dr Renato Morais, a postdoctoral researcher from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) and Research Hub for Coral Reef Ecosystem Functions at James Cook University (JCU), said plankton-eating fish play a major, widespread role in the productivity of tropical coral reefs.

He said microscopic plankton form the base of marine food webs. They are eaten by tiny creatures such as zooplankton, which are then eaten by ocean creatures, such as corals and fish, and then those fish are eaten by larger fish.

“Coral reefs are renowned for a high biological productivity—when life thrives— but how this happens still eludes scientists,” Dr Morais said.

“We found ‘sweet spots’ of abundant fish are created where biological productivity converges from the ocean and spikes locally on reefs,” he said.

“These ‘sweet spots’, we found, are often driven by plankton-eating fish that feast on plankton from further offshore.”

He said as plankton reach the reef, carried by ocean waters, they are readily preyed upon, transferring energy and nutrients from offshore ecosystems to coral reef ecosystems. The influx boosts some areas beyond their usual limits of biological production to become richer with life.

Until now, little was known about the extent to which oceanic plankton and plankton-eaters boost the productivity of coral reef fishes. To address this, Dr Morais and his colleagues integrated and analysed extensive data from visual fish counts.

“One dataset covered the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean and much of the Pacific, while the other fish-count data came from three specific tropical locations that were representative of the diversity of coral reef ecosystems found in the larger dataset,” said coauthor Dr Alexandre Siqueira, from Coral CoE at JCU.

“By feeding on offshore plankton, these fish deliver extra resources to reef ecosystems, which drives the local concentration of extreme biological productivity—including for their own predators, which are large fish,” said coauthor Professor David Bellwood, also from Coral CoE at JCU.

“These ‘sweet spots’ are where fishing can be bountiful,” Prof Bellwood said.

“Plankton-eating fish in some of these areas are responsible for more than half of the total fish production—up to 22 kg per hectare per day.”

The researchers say their findings hold particular significance for the future of tropical reef fisheries.

“As coral reefs continue to degrade, we can expect offshore productivity to decline,” Dr Morais said.

“So, the areas where these dwindling resources are concentrated may become even more important for fishers.”



Morais RA, Siqueira AC, Smallhorn-West PF, Bellwood DR. (2021). ‘Spatial subsidies drive sweet spots of tropical marine biomass production’. PLoS Biology. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001435


A selection of images can be used for media stories with credit to the photographer as stated in the image caption. Please note these are for single use with this story only, not for any other story. No archival permissions are granted.


Renato Morais (Townsville, AEST)
E: renato.morais@my.jcu.edu.au

Alexandre Siqueira Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (0)498 574 927
E: alexandre.siqueira@my.jcu.edu.au

David Bellwood Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (07) 4781 4447
E: david.bellwood@jcu.edu.au


Melissa Lyne / Coral CoE (Sydney, AEDT)
P: +61 (0)415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

A new partnership brings together two disciplines of science—coral research and maritime archaeology—to map one of the most historic shipwrecks in Australian waters.

SS Yongala is one of the most intact shipwrecks in the Southern Hemisphere and renowned for its extraordinary abundance and diversity of marine life.

Despite the natural, cultural and economic importance of Yongala, complete 3D photogrammetric surveys of the wreck or quantitative analyses of the marine fauna – namely fish and coral combined, have never been conducted on the site.

Museum of Tropical Queensland and James Cook University (JCU) Senior Curator of Maritime Archaeology Dr Maddy McAllister said the scientific team are working together using 3D photogrammetry to map, not only the ship, but also the coral growing on the wreck.

“Our aim is to collect both baseline archaeological and ecological data at the same time, which can be used to inform conservation efforts and future management plans of the site,” Dr McAllister said.

Scientists will use photogrammetry, a technique that uses multiple overlapping photographs to create 3D models of the wreck and of coral colonies.

Museum of Tropical Queensland and ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at JCU  (Coral CoE) Senior Curator of Corals Dr Tom Bridge said the wreck acts as an artificial reef that is home to thousands of marine animals.

“The biodiversity of Yongala is quite different to what we see on the natural reefs nearby. For example, soft corals and black corals – which are highly understudied – are particularly abundant. While they do occur on many shallow coral reefs around the world, they are much more abundant on Yongala than the well-known hard corals that dominate nearby reefs.”

“Interestingly it is these understudied groups, particularly black corals, that provide most of the structural habitat that supports the incredible marine biodiversity that the site is famous for.” Dr Bridge said

James Cook University PhD Candidate at Coral CoE Erika Gress has been collecting data on the fish and coral populations around Yongala since early 2021.

“The wreck supports an incredibly diverse marine fauna, which includes what is potentially one of the highest fish biomass per unit area in the world,” Erika said.

“The study looks to quantify species richness, abundance and biomass of fish throughout different seasons. Using non-invasive, advanced technology and software we are able to obtain precise counts and measurements of all fish that live in that area.”

Queensland Museum Network CEO Dr Jim Thompson said the project will provide fundamental data and insight into an incredibly important ecosystem and heritage site that is visited by thousands of people each year.

“Museum of Tropical Queensland and James Cook University have an incredibly diverse and skilled team of scientists, bringing together the brightest minds for an amazing Queensland research outcome – helping to ensure the future of Yongala.

In another first, Erika has been invited to share her preliminary findings on the biodiversity living around Yongala at the upcoming Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology (AIMA) Conference ‘Oceans of Heritage’ being held in Townsville from 11–13 November 2021.

Results and findings from the project are expected to be released in 2022.


Andrea Hughes, Museum of Tropical Queensland         
P: 07 4726 0604 or 0497 347 117
E: andrea.hughes@qm.qld.gov.au


About Museum of Tropical Queensland (Townsville)

The Museum of Tropical Queensland is the only branch of the Queensland Museum Network located in Townsville, North Queensland. The Museum focuses on researching and interpreting the cultural and natural heritage of tropical Queensland. The present museum opened in 2000 on the site of an earlier, smaller building. Its new and modern displays explore life in the tropics from pre-historic times to the modern era.

About Queensland Museum Network

Queensland Museum Network (QMN) is the keeping place for the State Collection of more than 1.2 million cultural objects, natural history specimens and geological treasures and more than 14 million research items. The Queensland Museum Network is a museum without borders, committed to engaging with communities across Queensland and beyond through five public sites, a state-wide education loans service, virtual museum online and best-selling popular publications.

A new study suggests corals may be able to cope with climate change in the coming decades better than previously thought—but will still struggle with ever-faster rates of climate change.

Lead author Kevin Bairos-Novak is a PhD candidate at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU). He said the rate at which corals can adapt to climate change depends on what is passed down from their parents.

“We looked at all previous coral studies examining what is called ‘heritability’ and this allowed us to look at how parent corals’ survival under environmental stress is likely to be passed down, through genes, to their offspring,” Mr Bairos-Novak said.

“We found their ability to pass on adaptive traits is maintained despite increasing temperatures,” he said.

“In particular, corals that are better than average at survival, growth and resisting bleaching stress under future ocean conditions should be good at passing those advantages on to their offspring.”

However, while the study is good news, the authors warn that making the most of this capacity for adaptation will require reducing the current rate of global warming.

“Though temperature increases don’t appear to influence the ability of corals to pass on adaptive traits, the damage that we are already seeing to coral reefs from climate change tells us that the current rates of change are too fast for coral adaptation to keep up,” said co-author Associate Professor Mia Hoogenboom, also from Coral CoE at JCU.

“Climate change is rapidly intensifying across the globe,” said co-author Professor Sean Connolly from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. He said if climate change is too fast then there isn’t sufficient time for evolution to generate new variations to cope with even more stressful conditions.

“Adapting to change means a species can persist in an altered environment for longer,” Professor Connolly said. “But as new conditions arise, evolution needs time to generate new variation in coral traits, such as temperature tolerance, which can then spread in the population if they are beneficial.”

“So, if we can curb climate change, and stabilise temperatures, many coral species will have a shot at adapting to warmer temperatures.”

The study is a synthesis of 95 trait measurements across 19 species of reef-building corals.

“The fossil record tells us that times of rapid environmental change are a major challenge to life, and can lead to very high rates of extinction,” Mr Bairos-Novak said. “This is a challenge faced by all living organisms during such times.”

“However, our findings show that corals are fighters. They are good at passing beneficial traits onto the next generation and the next—helping them cope with the stresses they face.”

“And this is what may help them navigate the next few decades better than we previously thought.”


Bairos-Novak K, Hoogenboom M, van Oppen M, Connolly S. (2021). ‘Coral adaptation to climate change: Meta-analysis reveals high heritability across multiple traits’. Global Change Biology. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.15829

A selection of images can be used for media stories with credit to the photographer as stated in the image caption. Please note these are for single use with this story only, not for any other story. No archival permissions are granted.


Kevin Bairos-Novak (Townsville, AEST)
E: kevin.bairosnovak@my.jcu.edu.au

Mia Hoogenboom (Townsville, AEST)
E: mia.hoogenboom1@jcu.edu.au

Sean Connolly (Panama, EST)
P: +507 6287 6944
E: connollys@si.edu

Melissa Lyne / Coral CoE (Sydney, AEST)
P: +61 (0)415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

new study raises questions on whether current conservation science and policy for protected areas could be saving more biodiversity—with political and economic expediency often having taken precedence in the past.

Lead author Professor Bob Pressey, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University (JCU), said the term ‘save’ in conservation needs to be better defined.

“Across the world, protected areas are established where they least interfere with commercial activities, even though those activities can cause decline and extinction,” Prof Pressey said.

“But ‘saving’ means intervening in a way that prevents the loss of ecosystems and species,” he said.

“There lies the problem. Business as usual means expanding protected areas where they make little difference while threatened biodiversity continues to disappear.”

Prof Pressey said measures other than saving are used to assess conservation progress, and these are often politically convenient: money invested, km2 protected areas established and the number of species contained in national parks. These measures can hide a lack of progress in real conservation.

“What do these measures actually tell us about saving?” he said. “Not much. Real progress in saving biodiversity is measured by how much loss we have avoided.”

While political, institutional and communication barriers are difficult to overcome, conservation measures need to be redefined. As an example, the study suggests the Aichi global Target 11 to increase protected areas to 17% of land and 10% of oceans hampers conservation. The target has instead motivated a race to increase coverage in the most expedient ways, both politically and economically.

Prof Pressey said there is a real risk that post-2020 targets will do the same unless they focus on avoiding loss.

“The future of nature conservation lies in identifying where science and policy can make the most difference—and then measuring, year by year, the difference made,” he said.

The study brought together a team of scientific and policy experts from across Australia, Austria, and the USA. Their results will contribute to ongoing global discussions about the post-2020 global biodiversity framework.

“Better science is needed to demonstrate that we can predict where, when, and how we can most effectively save biodiversity,” Prof Pressey said.

“And global policy makers need to revise their expectations and targets to address conservation impact, or avoided loss.”

He said saving biodiversity means developing global guidance for all jurisdictions to implement local interventions.

“With this, we can achieve smarter and more meaningful conservation targets that go beyond the extent of the area being protected.”


Pressey R, Visconti P, McKinnon M, Gurney G, Barnes M, Glew L, Maron M. (2021). ‘The mismeasure of conservation’. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2021.06.008


Bob Pressey (Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (0)418 387 681
E: bob.pressey@jcu.edu.au


Melissa Lyne / Coral CoE (Sydney, AEST)
P: +61 (0)415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

A new study reveals the strategies that stop bandits from illegally fishing in Australian waters—but warns there is a cost to the region’s poorer countries.

Co-author Dr Brock Bergseth, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, said poachers are simply following the recurring history of human fishing: intensively fish and devastate local resources, then move further afield to—in these cases—fish illegally or poach in other countries’ waters.

“Millions of people rely on fish and seafood and when offered no alternative choice, will chose banditry and illegal fishing to get by,” Dr Bergseth said.

“But without a regional strategy and investments for rebuilding and managing countries’ fisheries, this just becomes one big game of whack-a-mole: you deal with the problem in one area, only for it to pop up in another,” he said.

The study shows how Vietnamese poaching boats, or ‘blue boats’, encroached into Australian waters between 2013 and 2017.

Under a jointly signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2017, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and the Vietnamese Ministry for Agriculture and Rural Development designed and delivered a series of workshop interventions to deter illegal fishing by Vietnamese fishers in Australia between 2017 and 2018.

Both before and after the workshops, 82 fishers were surveyed to understand why they were coming to Australia and also whether the workshop’s explanations of the penalties were effective in shifting perceptions related to reducing illegal fishing.

“The main reason these fishers engaged in banditry was their displacement from their traditional fishing grounds in the South China Sea,” Dr Bergseth said. “This is just one of the implications of an expanding Chinese territory, and it affects countries as far away as Australia.”

Lead author Dr Chris Wilcox, from Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, said since the workshops, there hasn’t been a single sighting of a Vietnamese fishing boat illegally fishing in Australian or Pacific waters.

But, he cautions, while an understanding of the penalties might deter fishers from poaching in Australian waters, they also lose their access to economically viable fish resources.

Captains and their crews opt to fish in other locations, legal or not, even in the face of penalties for doing so.

“Australia can build a wall of steel with patrol boats and surveillance aeroplanes to protect our waters—but without improvements in fish stocks in their legal fishing grounds, Vietnamese vessels will be under pressure to leave in pursuit of revenue. This is creating ongoing issues for our regional neighbours,” Dr Wilcox said.

Reports continue to surface of Vietnamese fishers captured in other regional countries including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vanuatu.

Dr Wilcox said regional action on the root causes of the problem can solve the issue for everyone. And though this is a long-term project, it also has the best potential for the highest long-term return on investment in terms of reducing illegal fishing.

“Incursions will continue as long as the number of fishing vessels across the region exceeds what the resources can support,” Dr Wilcox said. “While it is essential to keep the enforcement pressure on, this is where coordination across the region could have a positive effect.”

However, he also said tension amongst South East Asian countries over sea borders and other issues still precludes effective coordinated action on illegal fishing.

“Addressing the state of resources in the waters of countries across the region and their ability to collaborate to address vessels illegally crossing borders to fish are the two key ingredients for solving this problem,” Dr Wilcox said.

Dr Bergseth said otherwise, things will only get worse as ocean resources dwindle.

“The decisions we make in the next 5–10 years could well chart the state of our oceans for the next 100,” he said.


Wilcox C, Bergseth B. (2021). ‘Effectiveness of interventions to shift drivers of roving banditry and reduce illegal fishing by Vietnamese blue boats’. Conservation Letters. DOI: 10.1111/conl.12823


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Brock Bergseth (Santa Barbara, PST. Dr Bergseth will be available for interview after 12.01am AEST on Tuesday 13 July 2021)
P: +1 747 299 8875
E: brock.bergseth@jcu.edu.au
Skype: @BrockBergseth

Chris Wilcox (Hobart, AEST)
P: +61 (0)439 397 317
E: chris.wilcox@csiro.au


Melissa Lyne / Coral CoE (Sydney, AEST)
P: +61 (0)415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

Five world-renowned scientists have signed a letter to UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay to “thank UNESCO for its leadership in recognising the threat of climate change to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage property.”

Professor Terry Hughes, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Dr Sylvia Earle, Professor Johan Rockström and Professor Andréa Grottoli sent the letter last night from Australia.

Last month, UNESCO released a draft decision recommending the Great Barrier Reef be inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The scientists’ letter is a strong show of support for UNESCO from some of the most revered coral reef experts in the world.

They write UNESCO “has made the right decision” to recommend the in Danger listing of the Great Barrier Reef, because “tragically, the Reef has suffered extensive losses in recent years through three severe coral bleaching events, fuelled by global warming.”

They stress that protecting the Reef requires global action to reduce carbon emissions, “yet Australia has so far not pulled its weight in this global effort.”

“An ‘in Danger’ listing for the Great Barrier Reef will focus action on how to limit further damage to the Reef. It presents a challenge to all nations to immediately reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Prof Terry Hughes.

“Australia has a lot to lose with current emission pledges only getting us to global surface temperatures of a lethal 3 degrees C above preindustrial levels,” said Prof Hoegh-Guldberg, who also coordinated an Australian Academy of Science report on climate change earlier this year.

“We therefore greatly appreciate UNESCO’s draft recommendation for Australia to urgently address the threat of climate change and welcome the draft report’s recognition that 1.5 degrees C is widely recognised as a critical threshold for the property,” the letter says.

The letter acknowledges efforts by the Australian and Queensland Governments to tackle sediment and nutrient pollution, which were also commended by UNESCO.

But, the scientists add UNESCO’s draft decision “notes with the utmost concern that the water quality targets in the Reef 2050 Plan have not been met.”

Finally, the scientists pledge that they “stand ready to help support UNESCO’s efforts to secure the future of this global icon.”

The 44th session of the World Heritage Committee, held online from 16 to 31 July 2021, will decide whether to accept or modify the draft decision on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Australian government has said it will strongly lobby member countries of the World Heritage Committee to remove the in Danger recommendation.



Distinguished Professor Terry Hughes FAA is the Founding Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, headquartered at James Cook University, Queensland. In 2018, Nature recognised Professor Hughes as one of the “10 people who mattered this year” for his response to the global coral bleaching event caused by anthropogenic climate change.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg FAA is Professor of Marine Studies at the University of Queensland, a Founding Director of the Global Change Institute, and Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. He was Coordinating Lead Author on the Impacts chapter of the United Nations IPCC Special report on 1.5 degrees C.

Dr Sylvia Earle is an oceanographer, National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence, and Chair of Mission Blue which aims to achieve 30% protection of the ocean by 2030. She was named by Time Magazine as its first Hero for the Planet in 1998.

Professor Johan Rockström is Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. His climate science work formed the basis of the Sir David Attenborough-narrated Netflix documentary Breaking Boundaries.

Professor Andréa G. Grottoli, based at Ohio State University, is a Fellow and President of the International Coral Reef Society, and Director of the international Coral Bleaching Research Coordination Network.



Terry Hughes (Townsville, AEST)
+61 (0)400 720 164

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg (Brisbane, AEST)
P: +61 (0)401 106 604
E: oveh@uq.edu.au 


Melissa Lyne / Coral CoE at JCU (Sydney, AEST)
P: + 61 (0)415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

A new study has found baby coral reef fishes can outpace all other baby fishes in the ocean.

Lead author Adam Downie is a PhD candidate at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU).

Mr Downie said when considering aquatic athletes, young coral reef fishes shine: they are some of the fastest babies, swimming around 15–40 body lengths per second.

As a comparison, herring babies swim up to two body lengths per second, and the fastest human in the water, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, can only swim 1.4 body lengths per second.

“We found the swimming performance in baby fishes relates to whether they ultimately associate with a reef or not,” Mr Downie said.

“When they’re a baby searching for a new reef to call home, a reef fish has to navigate the open ocean and its currents. To be successful at this they need a higher swimming capacity than other non-reef fishes.”

“We think that, over evolutionary time, habitat association shaped the swimming performance in the early life stages of these marine fishes,” said co-author Dr Peter Cowman, also from Coral CoE at JCU and Senior Curator of Biosystematics from Queensland Museum’s Project DIG.

“In our study, we compared more than 200 marine fish species across their 150 million years of shared ancestry. We found baby fishes that settle onto a reef later in life, whether tropical or temperate, have evolved to grow larger muscles and swim faster than their non-reef relatives,” Dr Cowman said.

The reef fish babies develop these muscles as well as their organs very quickly—all signs of great athletes. Other fishes—such as the herring, which remains in the open ocean for its whole life—don’t have these attributes.

“These tiny creatures aren’t just passive particles floating around in the ocean,” said co-author Associate Professor Jodie Rummer, also from Coral CoE and the College of Science and Engineering at JCU. “They are finely tuned athletes.”

“Swimming machinery forms early in a fish’s life—and some just do it bigger, faster and better than others.”

In another recent study, Mr Downie also found the health of the reef that baby reef fishes choose to call home could affect their athletic performance. Settling on degraded coral reefs may require extra energy for these young fishes, which could then compromise their growth, swimming and other vital activities.

“While reef fishes may be exceptional swimmers in early life, the condition of their home can have huge impacts on their performance—and likely their ability to develop into healthy adults,” Mr Downie said.

Coral reefs worldwide are degrading due to climate change, pollution, boat traffic, sediment run-off and coastal development.

“As the global damage to coral reefs persists, future populations of reef fishes are at risk,” Dr Rummer said.

“Compromising the health of baby fishes compromises the health of adult populations and therefore entire marine ecosystems,” she said.

“There are around 17,000 known marine fish species,” Mr Downie said. “They are an important part of any functioning marine ecosystem—not to mention crucial for fisheries, which support nearly half of the world’s human population.”

“Our findings show how important it is to urgently reduce the human impact on these fragile species and ecosystems,” he said.

“Healthy reefs mean healthy fish and a healthy planet.”



Downie A, Leis J, Cowman P, McCormick M, Rummer J. (2021). ‘The influence of habitat association on swimming performance in marine teleost fish larvae’. Fish and Fisheries. DOI: 10.1111/faf.12580

Downie A, Phelps C, Jones R, Rummer J, Chivers D, Ferrari M, McCormick M. (2021). ‘Exposure to degraded coral habitat depresses oxygen uptake rate during exercise of a juvenile reef fish’. Coral Reefs. DOI: 10.1007/s00338-021-02113-x


A selection of images can be used for media stories with credit to the photographer as stated in the image caption. Please note these are for single use with this story only, not for any other story. No archival permissions are granted.


Adam Downie (Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (0) 403 587 050
E: adam.downie@my.jcu.edu.au

Jodie Rummer (Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (0) 439 166 171
E: jodie.rummer@jcu.edu.au

Pete Cowman (Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (0)490 231 223
E: peter.cowman@qm.qld.gov.au


Melissa Lyne/ Coral CoE (Sydney, AEST)
P: +61 (0)415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au


New research shows what is often assumed to be ‘fair’ in conservation practice may not be considered so by the very people most affected by it—and a new approach is needed if protected areas are to be effective.

Lead author Dr Georgina Gurney, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies based at James Cook University, said considering local stakeholder conceptions of fairness in conservation is critical.

“If conservation is perceived as unfair it can lead to conflict, undermining support and cooperation,” Dr Gurney said.

She said it is not only an ethical matter but key to achieving good outcomes for people and the environment.

“But what is fairness? Very few studies have asked this question in the context of conservation, especially marine protected areas.”

The researchers asked Indigenous communities in Fiji (who hold customary tenure rights to land and sea) about the fairness of five alternative approaches to distributing money paid by tourists to dive in a new co-managed marine protected area.

“Our study found local stakeholders considered the ‘most fair’ way to distribute money from the area was according to who held rights over the area,” said co-author Dr Sangeeta Mangubhai, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Fiji Country Program.

“They thought the least fair way to distribute money was according to the costs incurred to fishers who were affected by the new rules prohibiting fishing.”

The findings challenge common assumptions in much of the conservation literature and practice about what constitutes distributional fairness. These often focus on equality and forgone economic benefits of resource extraction, such as fishing.

“Our findings help clarify fairness in global environmental policies and agreements,” Dr Mangubhai said. “Explicitly identifying what is considered fair by those most affected by conservation is important during both the planning and evaluation processes.”

“This practice is especially important in low- and middle-income countries. Conservation practice and policy undertaken in these countries are often shaped by that developed in rich Western countries, which means they are underpinned by Western ideas about fairness.”

“As the coverage of conservation areas is expected to grow to 30% of the world’s surface by 2030, more attention should be given to what local stakeholders consider is fair with regards to related decision-making and the distribution of associated costs and benefits,” Dr Gurney said.

“To help make sure existing and new protected areas work, we need to move beyond tacit assumptions about what constitutes fair management to explicit identification of local conceptions of fairness.”

“Otherwise, we risk the chance of support for the protected area being eroded.”


Gurney G, Mangubhai S, Fox M, Kiatkoski Kim M, Agrawal A. (2021). ‘Equity in environmental governance: perceived fairness of distributional justice principles in marine co-management’. Environmental Science & Policy. DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2021.05.022


A selection of images can be used for media stories with credit to the photographer as stated in the image caption. Please note these are for single use with this story only, not for any other story. No archival permissions are granted. 


Dr Georgina Gurney (Townsville, AEST)
P: +61 (0)415 465 712
E: georgina.gurney@gmail.com

Dr Sangeeta Mangubhai (Suva, Fiji, GMT+12)
E: smangubhai@wcs.org


Melissa Lyne/ Coral CoE (Sydney, AEST)
P: +61 (0)415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

New research on the growth rates of coral reefs shows there is still a window of opportunity to save the world’s coral reefs—but time is running out.

The international study was initiated at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE), which is headquartered at James Cook University (JCU).

Co-author Professor Morgan Pratchett from Coral CoE at JCU said the results show that unless carbon dioxide emissions are drastically reduced the growth of coral reefs will be stunted.

“The threat posed by climate change to coral reefs is already very apparent based on recurrent episodes of mass coral bleaching,” Prof Pratchett said. “But changing environmental conditions will have other far-reaching consequences.”

Co-author Professor Ryan Lowe, from Coral CoE at The University of Western Australia (UWA), said modern coral reef structures reflect a balance between a wide range of organisms that build reefs, not just corals. This includes coralline algae—a rock-hard alga that bind reefs together.

“While the responses of individual reef organisms to climate change are increasingly clear, this study uniquely examines how the complex interactions between diverse communities of organisms responsible for maintaining present day coral reefs will likely change reef structures in the future,” Prof Lowe said.

The joint lead authors, Dr Christopher Cornwall and Dr Steeve Comeau (who are now at Victoria University of Wellington and Sorbonne Université CNRS Laboratoire d’Océanographie de Villefranche sur Mer, respectively) calculated how coral reef growth is likely to react to ocean acidification and warming under three different climate-change carbon dioxide scenarios: low, medium and worst-case.

The findings suggest that under an intermediate emissions scenario, some reefs may even keep pace with sea-level rise by growing—but only for a short while.

“All reefs around the world will be eroding by the end of the century under the intermediate scenario,” said co-author Dr Scott Smithers, from JCU. “This will obviously have serious implications for reefs, reef islands, as well as the people and other organisms depending upon coral reefs.”

The study gives broader projections of ocean warming and acidification—and their interaction—on the net carbonate production of coral reefs.

Warming oceans bring more marine heatwaves, which cause mass coral bleaching. Ocean acidification affects the ability of calcifying corals to form their calcium carbonate skeletons, a process called ‘calcification’. Warming waters also reduce calcification.

The data in the study include net calcification, bioerosion and sediment dissolution rates measured or collated from 233 locations across 183 distinct reefs. 49% of the reefs were in the Atlantic Ocean, 39% in the Indian Ocean and 11% in the Pacific Ocean.

These were then modelled against three Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emissions scenarios for low, medium and high-impact outcomes on ocean warming and acidification for 2050 and 2100.

The projections show that even under the low-impact case, reefs will suffer severely reduced growth, or accretion, rates.

“While 63% of reefs are projected to continue to accrete by 2100 under the low-impact pathway, 94% will be eroding by 2050 under the worse-case scenario,” Dr Cornwall said. “And no reef will continue to accrete at rates matching projected sea-level rise under the medium and high-impact scenarios by 2100.”

“Our study shows changing environmental conditions challenge the growth of reef-building corals and other calcifying organisms, which are important in maintaining the structure of reef systems,” Prof Pratchett said.

“Saving coral reefs requires immediate and drastic reductions in global carbon emissions.”


Cornwall C, Comeau S, Korndere N, Perry C, Van Hooidon R, DeCarlo T, Pratchett M, Anderson K, Browne N, Carpenter R, Diaz-Pulidoo G, D’Olivo J, Doo S, Figueiredo J, Fortunato S, Kennedy E, Lantz C, McCulloch M, González-Rivero M, Schoepf V, Smithers S, Lowe R. 2021. ‘Global declines in coral reef calcium carbonate production under ocean acidification and warming’. PNAS. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2015265118


Morgan Pratchett (AEST, Townsville, Australia)
P: +61 (0)488 112 295
E: morgan.pratchett@jcu.edu.au

Ryan Lowe (AWST, Perth, Australia)
P: +61 (0)466 492 719
E: Ryan.Lowe@uwa.edu.au

Scott Smithers (AEST, Townsville, Australia)
P: +61 (0)428 752 433
E: scott.smithers@jcu.edu.au

Chris Cornwall (NZST, Wellington, New Zealand)
E: christopher.cornwall@vuw.ac.nz


Melissa Lyne / Coral CoE (AEST, Sydney, Australia)
P: +61 (0) 415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

A world first study within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park has found limited fishing zones (yellow zones) are still important conservation and fisheries management tools when paired with no-fishing zones.

Lead author Dr April Hall, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU), said partially protected yellow zones still contain healthy numbers of reef fish targeted for recreational and commercial fishing. These include coral trout, tropical snappers, emperors and tuskfish.

Yellow zones limit, rather than prohibit, fishing through fishing gear restrictions. For example, limited line fishing is allowed with one rod or line and one hook per person.

“We found the numbers of popular fishing targets in these yellow zones are up to 69 percent of what they are in the adjacent no-take green zones,” Dr Hall said.

Green zones, where all fishing is prohibited, are more frequently studied areas. Their benefits to conservation and flow-on fisheries are already well-established.

Though there were fewer fishing targets in the yellow zones, both yellow and green zones had similar abundances of non-target fishes and richness of fish species overall.

“Both green and yellow zones supported a great diversity of fish species,” Dr Hall said.

Yellow zones were set aside as partially protected areas in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s (GBRMPA) 2004 zoning plan. Co-author Darren Cameron, from GBRMPA, said the Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s largest and most comprehensively studied marine parks. However, this research is the first to specifically address yellow zones.

“We found yellow zones, in conjunction with green zones, are an effective management tool. They contribute to marine park conservation goals whilst positively supporting fishing opportunities,” Mr Cameron said.

The study took place within the Hinchinbrook and Dunk Island region. The area has outstanding biodiversity and cultural heritage. It is an important area for recreational, commercial and indigenous fishing. The study also considers zoning on inshore reefs, an area which has previously received little attention.

The project is a collaboration between Coral CoE at JCU and GBRMPA, as part of Dr Hall’s Advance Queensland Post-Doctoral Fellowship. The analyses form part of her broader project evaluating yellow zones across the Great Barrier Reef.

“Data from our project will be critical for conservation and fisheries alike,” Dr Hall said.


Hall A, Cameron D, Kingsford M. 2021. ‘Partially protected areas as a management tool on inshore reefs’. Rev Fish Biol Fisheries. DOI: 10.1007/s11160-021-09654-y


A selection of images can be used for media stories with credit to the photographer as stated in the image caption. Please note these are for single use with this story only, not for any other story. No archival permissions are granted.


April Hall (Coral CoE at JCU, Townsville, Australia)
P: +61 (0) 458 565 194
E: april.hall@jcu.edu.au

Darren Cameron (GBRMPA, Townsville, Australia)
P: +61 (0) 438375569
E: Darren.Cameron@gbrmpa.gov.au


Melissa Lyne (Coral CoE at JCU, Sydney, Australia)
P: +61 (0) 415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au


What is a Yellow Zone?

Fishing activities allowed in a Conservation Park (Yellow) Zone include:

For a description of the full range of Great Barrier Reef Marine Park zones and their restrictions, see here.

Today, the British Ecological Society announced Dr Renato Morais from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University as the winner of this year’s Haldane Prize.

The prize is given each year to the best paper in the journal Functional Ecology from an early career author. Dr Morais was awarded the prize for: Severe coral loss shifts energetic dynamics on a coral reef.

Dr Morais led an international team of researchers comparing reef survey data from 2003–2004 and 2018 at Lizard Island. The team evaluated how the metrics of energy flow and storage that underscore critical coral reef function responded to severe coral loss. The losses followed cyclones in 2014 and 2015 and bleaching events in 2016 and 2017.

“What we found was counter-intuitive,” Dr Morais said. “In the 15 years punctuated by recurring catastrophic events of coral loss, reef fish assemblages became more, not less, productive.”

Dr Morais explained this was because the increased occurrence of larger, and presumably older, herbivorous fishes was linked to a massive increase in their favoured food: short algal turfs that quickly colonise dead corals.

Yet, the team found rates of biomass ‘recycling’ (i.e., turnover) decreased during this period, likely because large fish grow proportionally less than small ones.

“Overall, our results cautioned against interpreting the extra productivity following coral loss as necessarily positive, as it may not be stable in the long run if old fish are not replenished,” Dr Morais said.

“I am grateful for having the opportunity to develop an interesting, yet unexpected, project during my PhD, and very thrilled to accept the 2020 Haldane Prize for the paper.”

Enrico Rezende, Senior Editor of Functional Ecology said: “By combining detailed longitudinal surveys with sound theoretical analyses, Dr Morais and his colleagues provide a detailed account of the shift in energy dynamics during the degradation of a coral reef.”

The British Ecological Society (BES) awards its journal prizes annually. The prizes are for each of the seven BES journals: Functional EcologyJournal of Animal EcologyJournal of Applied EcologyJournal of EcologyMethods in Ecology and EvolutionPeople and Nature, and for the first time, Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

The winning papers are selected by the Senior Editors of the journals. The awards are presented to the winners at the BES Annual Meeting in Liverpool.

The winners receive a prize of £250, membership of the BES, a year’s subscription to the respective journal and a contribution to the costs incurred in attending the BES Annual Meeting in the UK if they wish to give a presentation on their work.

British Ecological Society

Founded in 1913, the British Ecological Society (BES) is the oldest ecological society in the world. The BES promotes the study of ecology through a range of scientific literature, funding and events, education initiatives and policy work. The society has around 6,500 members from nearly 130 different countries. www.britishecologicalsociety.org


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