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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Our research program combines the disciplines of political science and geography to understand and improve the design of complex environmental governance regimes.  We work closely with a range of physical, natural, and social scientists and policymakers on inter-disciplinary approaches to environmental governance problems. Our social science capacity and competitiveness is underpinned by an international research program, involving co-tutelle PhD supervision and co-appointed postdoctoral fellowships, with colleagues at Exeter University, Stockholm University, WorldFish, and the University of Queensland.

Our current research is centered around three questions:


Hidden political-economic drivers in complex regimes.

Conceptual representation of changing regime structures (Morrison 2017 PNAS)

Global sustainability depends on better understanding and implementation of complex environmental governance regimes. However, current understanding is typically limited to snapshot analyses of the initial design or the emergent structure of complex regimes. To meet this challenge, we are focusing not only on the structure of regimes but also on systematically examining internal and external socio-political drivers in environmental governance. Recent results have been published in journals such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and WIREs Climate Change, and cited in major policy reviews such as the 2017 Review of Governance of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Our main aim is to uncover hidden levers for improving the design, implementation and robustness of complex environmental governance regimes. This program involves a diverse array of collaborators from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, University of Michigan, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, University of Exeter, University of Melbourne, Lancaster University, McGill University, WorldFish and WWF.





Governing through power asymmetry and complexity

The problems of resource-dependent regions include globally uneven power relations and development patterns, and rapid and uncertain exogenous threats. At the same time, economic and social restructuring involving devolved planning responsibilities, privatised resource rights, and networked management approaches are undermining previous scientific and policy assumptions about the resilience of resource-dependent regions. We already know that multiscale institutions play a critical role in ensuring the resilience and resourcefulness of regions in the face of such challenges. We do not yet understand why some regions are resilient while others strain or even paralyse under conditions of inequity, complexity, uncertainty, and unpredictability. Our early contributions to this field emerge out of conducting empirical research on policy and administration in the USA and Australia, focusing on the role of scale in governance. Our more recent work has involved the development of a Regional Governance Index for assessing the institutional potential of regions. This has led to new cross-national projects analysing the governance of governance (‘meta-governance’) in governing through power asymmetry and complexity. By focusing on scale and power asymmetry, we are providing an important counterpoint to the ‘bottom-up bias’ in sustainability science. See new papers in Journal of Rural Studies and American Review of Public Administration here.

Governance in the Anthropocene.

Different polycentric structures in three climate‐affected regions (Morrison et al. 2017 WIRES CC)

This dimension of our research is concerned with the feasibility of different institutional designs to respond to chronic conflict and cumulative impacts of multiple environmental threats, such as global climate change, coastal development and over-fishing. In four recent and highly influential Reviews (in Nature, WIRES Climate Change, Nature Climate Change and Ecosystems), we identified several key challenges associated with governing large scale SESs under climate change. Future research will continue this work by developing a robust framework for understanding complex environmental governance under climate change, providing a more rigorous basis for understanding the effects of complexity and change on socio-ecological systems. New findings demonstrate that current governance interventions fail comprehensively for large scale SESs under climate change, highlighting the need for a more forward-looking understanding of the governance of socio-ecological change incorporating complex exogenous, cumulative and feedback dynamics. See our new paper on marine fisheries and future ocean conflict in Fish and Fisheries.

  • Tiffany Morrison, Associate Professor, Chief Investigator, Program 1 Leader and Social Science Research Leader
  • Sivee Chawla, JCU PhD Candidate: Understanding ecosystem service choices made by individual actors and their implications for social–ecological interactions
  • Dr Pip Cohen, WorldFish Scientist & JCU Adjunct Research Fellow: Resilient small-scale fisheries
  • Eduardo Gallo-Cajiao, UQ PhD Candidate: Global governance for conserving migratory shorebirds
  • Dr Missaka Hettiarachchi, JCU & WWF Senior Fellow: Environment and disaster governance
  • Cindy Huchery, JCU & WorldFish Research Associate: People and ecosystems
  • Dr Danika Kleiber, JCU & WorldFish Research Fellow: Governance of small-scale fisheries
  • Sarah Lawless, JCU PhD Candidate: Assessing and orchestrating complex meta-norm diffusion in natural resource governance
  • Lucy McHugh, JCU PhD Candidate: Power and participation in seascape conservation in the Anthropocene: How are new governance models turning the tide?
  • Dr Andrew Song, JCU & WorldFish Research Fellow: Regional governance of fisheries
  • Jessica Spijkers, JCU & Stockholm University PhD Candidate: Navigating international conflicts in the governance of shared stocks
  • Shanna Grafeld, JCU: Market structures, trade networks, and governance of coral reef fisheries across a development gradient


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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