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.

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Coral Reef Studies

From 2005 to 2022, the main node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies was headquartered at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland (Australia)

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Coral reefs and MPAs in coastal China: challenges & opportunities for improving management, and incorporating ecosystem goods and services into economic policy


Wednesday June 19, 12:00 to 13:00 hrs (AEST)

Building 19 (Kevin Stark Research Building) Room 106 (upstairs), JCU, Townsville
Laurence McCook
Laurence McCook

China’s extraordinary economic development over recent decades has had enormous impacts on coastal marine ecosystems, including extensive, coastal coral reefs in the southern provinces. With around 20% of the global human population, 20% of global seafood consumption, and globally significant environmental changes, engaging with China is an urgent priority for marine conservation, yet information and capacity exchange with the international community is limited. Of around 124 coastal MPAs in the southern provinces, only a handful are documented in international atlases.
We have collated information on coral reefs and MPAs on the coasts of Guanxi, Hainan, Guangdong and Fujuian provinces, and outline governance arrangements, including the very recent nationalisation of all protected areas across China.
The effectiveness of MPA management is critical to outcomes for biodiversity and human well-being. We are adapting/developing and applying adaptive management approaches to China’s tropical South China Sea coast, beginning with a test adaptation of the standardised IUCN assessment framework at Sanya Bay, Hainan. The results identify key target aspect to improve management (e.g. upgrading water quality management; resourcing and implementation processes, and community engagement). Importantly, the pilot study demonstrates that the IUCN framework adapts readily to Chinese circumstances such as governance, culture and population, and indicates key challenges for broader application.
Two of the most critical challenges for implementation of improved management involve the integration of economic and legal perspectives with scientific perspectives. New developments in the comprehensive understanding and accounting of ecosystem services are demonstrating that investing in the conservation of marine ecosystems will often also improve the long-term sustainability and equity of economic benefits from the oceans. China is implementing important policies for terrestrial ecosystems, including accounting for “Gross Ecosystem Product”. In collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Ministry of Natural Resources agencies and the Statistics Division of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, we are developing a pilot study of Ocean Accounts, aiming to incorporate understanding and valuation (financial and non-financial) of ecosystem goods and services into management and policy.
In China, as elsewhere, it can be difficult to implement timely and effective changes. However, the current, (13th) Chinese national Five-Year Plan includes several important “eco-civilisation” policies that potentially provide very powerful legal instruments for dramatic improvements in marine management. These include the explicit emphases on i. environmental management, ii. marine protection, iii. improved water management, iv. poverty alleviation and v. the Rule of Law. Successful implementation would not only benefit China enormously, but provide international benefits and leadership.


Laurence McCook works in science-based management and conservation of marine ecosystems, especially coral reefs. Recently appointed Head of Oceans Conservation for WWF Hong Kong, he previously held “President’s International Visiting Professorial Fellowships” from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, at the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology (SCSIO) in Guangzhou, China. He is also an adjunct Principal Research Fellow in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Australia, adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Queensland, Australia, and Visiting Professor at Hasanuddin University in Makassar, Indonesia.
Laurence has a Ph.D. from Dalhousie University, in Canada, and more than 30 years’ experience, including coral reefs in Australia, Indonesia and the “Coral Triangle”, the Pacific and Caribbean, as well as temperate ecosystems. He has worked with government, academic research, non-government and industry sectors, and international bodies such as the United Nations. He has more than 70 peer-reviewed, scientific publications, with >9,300 citations.
Laurence was previously Senior Advisor to the Marine Program of Conservation International in Indonesia and from 2003 to 2014 worked for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, focused on the scientific basis of management, including assessing management effectiveness.
Before that, he spent 12 years at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, researching the ecology of coral reef resilience and degradation, the effects of water pollution, climate change and over-fishing.
In 2005, Laurence was awarded a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, which focused on enhancing the resilience of coral reefs and marine protected areas to climate change.
Laurence’s work in China aims to strengthen management of coral reefs and tropical marine habitats generally. He is particularly interested in using natural capital and ecosystem service accounting to redress the mistaken perception that human development necessarily comes at the cost of nature conservation.


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