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 has found that nearly half of fishers from seven countries had witnessed someone poaching in marine protected areas in the past year and most of them did nothing about it.

Dr Brock Bergseth from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University led the study. He said poaching is widespread in the world’s marine protected areas, and that fishers have the potential to make or break a marine protected area.

“Enforcement capacities are often limited, so managers are trying to encourage fishers to help out when they see someone breaking the law. But until now, we were uncertain about how fishers respond when they witness poaching.”

The research team surveyed fishers in Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Costa Rica, and Australia.

Fishers told researchers that they typically did one of four things after witnessing poaching: “do nothing,” “confront the poachers,” “report them to authorities,” or, in rare instances, “join the poachers.”

“Unfortunately, the most common response was to ‘do nothing,’” said Dr Bergseth.

Inaction was especially common on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR).

“Nearly 80 percent of fishers on the GBR did nothing in response to the observed poaching,” said Dr Bergseth. “This means there is a substantial portion of fishers who managers might hope to engage in surveillance and reporting, given the growing concern over the health of the GBR.”

Co-author Dr Georgina Gurney said fishers offered a variety of the reasons for inactivity after witnessing poaching on the GBR.

“GBR fishers said that they did nothing when they saw others poaching mostly because they thought it wasn’t their concern or their responsibility, they were uncertain as to whether it was illegal fishing, or because of obstacles to reporting.”

In all of the other countries in the study, a desire to avoid conflict was the most common reason offered by fishers for inaction after witnessing poaching, said Dr Bergseth.

“This highlights the fact that dealing with poachers is potentially dangerous in some countries – defending environmental rights can be risky, but there are tools to greatly reduce or eliminate the risk.”

“The bad news is that apathy towards poaching in marine protected areas is widespread,” said co-author Dr Michele Barnes, “but the good news is that there are already many tools and programs to encourage citizens to report poaching and other types of crimes. These can be adapted and tailored to encourage fishers to take action against poaching in a responsible way that minimises risk to themselves.”

The research team found that people who agreed with marine protected area rules and who were included in the decision-making processes were more likely to report or confront poachers.

“We know that when fishers are engaged in the management process of marine protected areas they tend to follow the rules more often. Here, we show that empowering fishers can also encourage voluntary enforcement,” said Dr Barnes.

“Encouragingly, many of the fishers who took action did so because they held stewardship beliefs, or saw that poaching personally affected them. These ideas can be further reinforced and leveraged by managers to improve conservation outcomes,” said Dr Gurney.

“The reality is that fish stocks are almost certainly going to be increasingly depleted in the future, to the point where poaching will affect all of us,” said Dr Bergseth.

“Equipping fishers with this knowledge, and the resources to responsibly do something about it, may well be the deciding factor as to whether our kids enjoy the same resources we do,” he said.

The paper “Addressing poaching in marine protected areas through voluntary surveillance and enforcement” is published today in Nature Sustainability.

Images available here.

Citation: Bergseth, B. J., et al. (2018). “Addressing poaching in marine protected areas through voluntary surveillance and enforcement.” Nature Sustainability 1(8): 421-426.


Dr Brock Bergseth
(currently in USA)
+1 (612) 381 7866 (CDT/ UTC -5)

Dr Georgina Gurney (Dr Gurney and Dr Barnes work at JCU’s Townsville campus).
0437 462 151

Dr Michele Barnes
0408 677 570

For more information:

Ms Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
P: +61 (0) 0428 785 895, +61 (0)7 4781 6067 (AEST/ UTC – 10)
E: catherine.naum1@jcu.edu.au

Marine scientists are calling for a re-think of how marine protected areas (MPAs) are planned and coordinated, following a global assessment of the conservation of tropical corals and fishes.

Researchers from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE), at James Cook University in Townsville, analysed the extent to which the evolutionary histories of corals and fishes are protected, rather than looking at individual species.

“Our interest was in evolutionary branches of the tree of life, rather than the traditional focus on rare, threatened or endemic species,” said Professor David Bellwood from the Coral CoE.

“In particular we were interested in the longer branches, which represent the greater proportion of evolutionary history.

“When we looked at tropical Marine Protected Areas from that perspective, we found that protection of corals and fishes falls significantly short of the minimum conservation target of protecting 10 per cent of their geographic ranges.

“Just one sixteenth of hard corals species are afforded that minimum level of protection, and for fishes – the wrasses – less than a quarter reach minimum protection levels.”

Professor Bellwood said that while it was still useful to focus on the conservation of rare, threatened and endemic species, planning protected areas around evolutionary history helped provide a deeper perspective.

“In effect, we are looking at protecting the reef equivalent of cultural heritage, the critically important history of living organisms,” he said.

“It is not just species that need protection but the genetic history that they contain. In a changing world this evolutionary diversity is likely to be increasingly important, as reefs respond to new challenges.

The researchers found that the shortfall in protection for corals was greatest in the Atlantic and the Eastern Pacific.

For fishes, the highest concentrations of poor protection are in the Western Indian Ocean and the Central Pacific.

“Even though our estimates are highly conservative, the inescapable conclusion is that most evolutionary branches of the tree of life on coral reefs are inadequately protected by the current system of Marine Protected Areas,” Professor Bellwood said.

Around 830,000 multi-cellular species call the world’s threatened coral reefs home, and half a billion people rely on the reefs for ecosystem services including food security, income and protection against natural hazards.

“MPAs continue to provide important and essential protection to certain species and habitats, but the bigger evolutionary picture needs to be considered in planning and coordinating the choice and location of future protected areas,” Professor Bellwood said.

“This is especially important in light of chronic decline due to deteriorating water quality and periodic damage by coral bleaching and cyclones.”



Global marine protected areas do not secure the evolutionary history of tropical corals and fishes by D. Mouillot, V. Parravicini, D.R. Bellwood, F. Leprieur, D. Huang, P.F. Cowman, C. Albouy, T.P. Hughes, W. Thuiller and F. Guilhaumon is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Photo credit: João Paulo Krajewski



A new and significant role for marine reserves on the Great Barrier Reef has been revealed, with researchers finding the reserves reduce the prevalence of coral diseases.

It’s been known for some time that marine reserves are important for maintaining and enhancing fish stocks, but this is the first time marine reserves have been shown to enhance coral health on the Great Barrier Reef.

Researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University found that coral disease levels were four times lower inside no-take marine reserves, where fishing is banned, compared to outside reserves.

Discarded fishing line caught on Great Barrier Reef coral. Image: Joleah Lamb.

“We surveyed more than 80,000 corals around the Whitsunday Islands for six different diseases that commonly harm reef corals around the world,” says study lead author, Dr Joleah Lamb from the Coral CoE.

“We found three coral diseases were more prevalent on reefs outside no-take marine reserves, particularly on reefs with high levels of injured corals and discarded fishing line.”

Wounded corals are more vulnerable to disease. Damaged tissue provides sites where pathogens and parasites can invade, particularly as coral immune responses are lowered while they heal.

Dr Lamb says once a pathogen infects a coral, tissue loss typically spreads from the point of entry.

“It’s like getting gangrene on your foot and there is nothing you can do to stop it from affecting your leg and ultimately your whole body.”

“Disease outbreaks can take a heavy toll, with losses of up to 95 per cent of coral cover on some reefs in the Caribbean.”

Given the difficulty identifying pathogens that cause disease, the researchers say it’s vital to understand which activities increase the risk of coral diseases, and to protect against them.

They say discarded fishing line and levels of coral breakage, potentially from a variety of fishing-related activities, outside the no-take zones on the Great Barrier Reef are indicators of the types of activities that contribute to the problem.

Researchers survey coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Image: Joleah Lamb.

“Fishing line not only causes coral tissue injuries and skeleton damage, but also provides an additional surface for potential pathogens to colonise, increasing their capacity to infect wounds caused by entangled fishing line,” Dr Lamb says.

The researchers hope their findings send a clear message to reef managers about the benefits of marine reserves for coral health.

“No take marine reserves are a promising approach for mitigating coral disease in locations where the concentration or intensity of fishing effort is relatively high,” says Professor Garry Russ from the Coral CoE.

Professor Bette Willis, also from the Coral CoE, says the scientists are now expanding their research to examine other drivers of coral disease.

“We’ve shown that there are strong links between damage and disease in this study, now we’re interested in understanding and managing other potential drivers of diseases that involve injury– such as outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, cyclones, and recreational activities like anchoring.”


Paper: Lamb JB, Williamson DH, Russ GR, and BL Willis (In Press). Protected areas mitigate diseases of reef-building corals by reducing damage from fishing. Ecology. DOI:10.1890/14-1952.1



Dr Joleah Lamb – Joleah.Lamb@my.jcu.edu.au, +61 (0) 4 59 040 091

Professor Bette Willis – Bette.Willis@jcu.edu.au, +61 (0) 7 4781 5349

Conservation scientists say there needs to be a new approach to protecting offshore marine reserves.

Illegal fishing in marine reserves will be a major focus at the IUCN World Parks Congress, which has opened in Sydney.

Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University, who are attending the conference, have found a way to predict illegal fishing activities to help authorities better protect marine reserves.

Marine reserves are the most common strategy used to protect and maintain marine ecosystems around the world.

The International Convention of Biological Diversity aims to have 10 per cent of the world’s marine areas protected by 2020.

Many countries are contributing to this target by protecting remote, offshore areas. For example, the United States recently created the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve, covering almost 1.27 million square kilometres in the central Pacific Ocean.

But scientists are concerned that while a great deal of effort is being made to create reserves, many countries are simply not able to enforce the laws that are supposed to protect them.

The majority of fishers obey the law, but some don’t.

fishing gear. Image: Todd Steiner, Sea Turtle Restoration Project

“The success of protected areas depends on whether people comply with the regulations,” says Professor Joshua Cinner from Coral CoE.

“Enforcement and compliance issues for large off-shore marine parks are fundamentally different to near-shore protected areas,” Professor Cinner says.

He explains that the biggest problems facing countries trying to enforce offshore marine reserves is their distance from land and the difficulty and cost of patrolling large tracts of ocean.

“The distances to these areas can be very large. They are a long way from prying eyes and quite often the regulations are such that you have to actually catch people illegally fishing to prosecute them,” Professor Cinner says.

“It can be extremely difficult for authorities to catch illegal fishers in the act.”

In a bid to combat the problem, researchers at Coral CoE examined five years’ worth of data collected from the World Heritage-listed Cocos Island National Park, a unique marine protected area in the Pacific Ocean about 500 kilometres off the west coast of Costa Rica.

From the records they were able identify illegal fishing patterns and predict both when and where illegal fishing was likely to happen.

They found that illegal fishing was concentrated in a few ‘hotspots’ and really ramped up during specific lunar phases of some months.

Professor Bob Pressey, also from Coral CoE, says authorities could use this knowledge to match patrols to the time and place when illegal fishers are most likely to be in action.

“Using a targeted approach helps authorities catch and deter illegal fishers, while saving money on patrols,” Professor Pressey says.

“Rather than just hoping you can catch illegal fishers effectively by random patrols, we have used previous patrols to look for patterns which tell us when and where people fish illegally,” adds Professor Cinner.

Study lead author, Coral CoE PhD candidate, Adrian Arias says the model of predicting illegal patterns from old records can be used to increase the success of patrols in other locations.

“Our research in Costa Rica showed how a systematic and periodic analysis of patrol records can help to increase the probability of catching illegal fishers. This could be done pretty much anywhere that patrol data are available,” he says.

Professor Cinner adds that by better targeting limited resources, authorities have a greater chance of successfully protecting marine parks.

“Targeting resources is particularly important for developing countries such as Costa Rica, which have taken on the conservation challenge but don’t have the same funding to ensure compliance as a country such as Australia.”


Optimizing enforcement and compliance in offshore marine protected areas: a case study from Cocos Islands, Costa Rica by Adrian Arias, Robert L. Pressey, Rhondda E. Jones, Jorge G Alvarez-Romero and Joshua E. Cinner is published in the journal, Oryx.   http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0030605314000337


Professor Josh Cinner, Coral CoE – +61 7 4781 6751, Joshua.cinner@jcu.edu.au

Professor Bob Pressey, Coral CoE – +61 7 4781619, bob.pressey@jcu.edu.au

Eleanor Gregory, Communications Manager, Coral CoE – +61 (0) 428 785 895,

Twenty of the world’s leading marine scientists have called for action by governments to halt the unsustainable plunder of the world’s ocean resources.

In letters to the international journal Science, they call for more countries to regulate the expanding and currently unsustainable trade in live fish collected from coral reefs, which threatens the livelihoods of millions of poor people.

This follows an earlier warning by 15 of the scientists about highly mobile “roving bandits” who clean out entire fisheries and then move on to the next resource beyond the reach of local authorities, taking advantage of slack world trade rules and ineffective fisheries management to sell their plunder.

The 20 Australian, British, Canadian, Chinese, Dutch, Italian, Swedish and US researchers are now calling for special attention to be paid to the fisheries and international trade in coral reef resources.

According to Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the answer to the crisis in marine management lies in

“We are already seeing that the intense targeting of key species by these mobile roving bandits can seriously destabilize marine systems, causing unpredictable collapses,” he says.

A team led by Cambridge University’s Dr. Andrea Manica has tracked an expanding wave of booms and busts in fisheries radiating out from Hong Kong, a major hub for international trade in live reef fish and other marine products.  He warns that areas such as the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Eastern Pacific are at high risk of similar uncontrolled exploitation.  “Several countries at the edge of the expanding wave of exploitation have started management plans and are taking steps to control the live fish trade”, he says.

“The removal of key species like parrot fish – which keep coral reefs free of weed – impacts the health of the entire reef, especially when the corals are already stressed by climate change”, says Professor David Bellwood, a senior researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The Napoleon wrasse, a giant reef fish that commonly reaches 2m in length and lives for more than 30 years, is especially vulnerable. “This is the first commercial reef fish to be listed on CITES, (the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), in response to its vulnerability to fishing and international trade.  The convention is one of the few with any teeth for fisheries” says Dr. Yvonne Sadovy, of the University of Hong Kong”.

The scientists say there is now sufficient evidence to conclude that reforming markets – which have opened up as a result of global trade liberalization – is an important strategy for controlling roving bandits.

They argue that regional surveillance is essential to reveal the full extent of market demand for ocean produce.

“As well as the trial fisheries and live fish management plans that have been initiated in some places, there are some encouraging signs that licensing, monitoring and enforcing can be effective at a local scale”, says Prof. Boris Worm from the Dalhousie University.

“Multilevel action, from the local to the international, is needed to establish institutions that are able to learn from experiences with roving bandits, develop decision-making skill in an environment of uncertainty and complexity, and respond quickly to shifts in demand from global markets,” says Professor Fikret Berkes of the University of Manitoba, Canada.

However, the scientists say, the strongest argument for balancing international trade and local needs is the social inequity that arises from the export of the dwindling coral reef resources of developing tropical nations.

“Once those resources are destroyed and forgotten, it is the local people who bear the costs of reduced options for future development,” they warn.

More information:

Terry Hughes
Address: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia.
Phone: +61 (0)7 4781 4000, 0429439782
Email:   terry.hughes@jcu.edu.au

David Bellwood
Address: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia.
Phone:    +61 7 4781 4447
Email:   david.bellwood@jcu.edu.au

Carl Folke
Address: Centre for Transdisciplinary Environmental Research and Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.
Phone:   +46 08 673 9533
Email: calle@ecology.su.se

Fikret Berkes
Address: Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N2, Canada.
Phone:  +12 04 474 6731
Email:   berkes@cc.umanitoba.ca

Beatrice Crona
Address: Centre for Transdisciplinary Environmental Research and Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.
Phone: +46 8 161 748
Email: Beatrice@ecology.su.se

Lance Gunderson
Address: Dept. of Environmental Studies, Emory University, Atlanta GA 30322, USA.
Phone:    +14 04 727 2429
Email:    lgunder@emory.edu

Heather Leslie
Address: Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology & The Princeton Environmental Institute, Princeton University, Princeton NJ 08544, USA.
Phone:    +1 609 258 7915
Email:   hleslie@princeton.edu
Heather is available to speak with the press on Thursday 16th and Friday 17th March.

Andrea Manica
Dept of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK.
Phone:  +44 1223 336627
Email: am315@cam.ac.uk

Jon Norberg
Address: Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.
Phone:  +46 8 164 916

Magnus Nyström
Address: Centre for Transdisciplinary Environmental Research and Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.
Phone: +46 (0)8 16 44 86
Email:  magnusn@ecology.su.se

Per Olsson
Address: Centre for Transdisciplinary Environmental Research and Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.
Phone: +46 8 162 518
Email: per@ctm.su.se

Henrik Österblom
Address: Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.
Phone: +46 8 405 1928
Email: henriko@ecology.su.se; henrik.osterblom@sustainable.ministry.se

Yvonne Sadovy, Department of Ecology & Biodiversity, University of Hong Kong, China:
Email yjsadovy@hku.hk;
tel: 852-2817-4834

Helen Scales
Dept of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK.
Email: helenscales@cantab.net

Marten Scheffer
Address: Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management Group, Department of Environmental Sciences, Wageningen University, 6700 DD Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Phone: +31 317 484 039
Email: marten.scheffer@wur.nl

Robert Steneck
Address: School of Marine Sciences, University of Maine, Orono, Maine 04469, USA.
Phone:  +1 207 563 3146 ext: 233 (Voice)
Email:     steneck@maine.edu

Jim Wilson
Address: School of Marine Sciences, University of Maine, Orono, Maine 04469, USA.
Phone: +1 207 581 4368
Email:  jwilson@maine.edu

Boris Worm
Address: Biology Department, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4J1, Canada.
Phone: +1 902 494 2478
Email: bworm@dal.ca

Jim O’Brien, James Cook University Media Office, 07 4781 4822

Hughes, TP, Berkes, F, Steneck, RS, Wilson, JA, Bellwood, DR, Crona, B, Folke, C, Gunderson, LH, Leslie, HM, Norberg, J, Nystrom, M, Olsson, P, Osterblom, H, Scheffer, M and Worm, B (2006). “Keeping Bandits at Bay? – Response.” Science 313(5787): 612c-614.
Link to Full Text or pdf


A study into the many ways to protect coral reefs has found that some of humanity’s oldest and most traditional methods are proving to be the best.

The study looked at different strategies for protecting areas of coral reefs within Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Indonesia. The study shows that the customary laws of local communities manage the reefs better than more modern national parks and reserves that are too poorly resourced to operate effectively.

“The traditional communities we studied in PNG and Indonesia have managed to protect their fragile reefs better than conservation groups or governments, because they were better able to gain community support” says Dr Josh Cinner of the ARC Center of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS). “The traditions of these people can give us new perspectives and new ideas on conservation.”

Dr Cinner and his colleagues, Drs Timothy McClanahan, Michael Marnane and William Kiene of the Wildlife Conservation Society, studied 11 protected reef areas throughout PNG and Indonesia.

“We wanted to know what is actually working in coral reef conservation, but more importantly, why,” says Dr. Cinner

The team of leading ecologists and social scientists studied national marine parks, marine reserves funded by conservation groups and universities, and areas controlled and owned by indigenous communities.

All of the traditionally managed areas had larger fish than in surrounding unprotected areas. Only one of the 8 national parks and reserves studied showed any difference to unprotected areas because of high levels of poaching.

By occasionally fishing their local areas after periods of closure, the communities provided food for traditional ceremonial feasts which gives direct economic benefits back to the communities.  “The traditionally managed areas had no budget and no outside support, yet they showed that they could meet the needs of their society and still be effective,” says Dr. Cinner.

“[These villages] all had a focus on building strong bonds between community members which increases the amount of trust within the village, making it easier and cheaper to follow local rules towards fishing,” says Dr. Cinner.

The communities achieved a high level of compliance with conservation laws without the need for patrols and enforcement, something which other parks and reserves invest large amounts of resources into.

“The lessons we have learnt from this study is that conservation strategies are most effective when they can directly benefit the communities involved,” says Dr. Cinner.

Most coral reefs are located in poor, developing countries that lack the resources to effectively establish and enforce a national system of marine protected areas. Australia is in a unique position to establish large marine reserves and make them work.

The lesson from this study is that even in a wealthy country, public support for conservation is essential for long-term success.


More information:
Joshua Cinner, Postdoctoral Fellow, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 6751, +61  043036 393
Professor Terry Hughes, Director, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 4000
Jenny Lappin, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 4222
Jim O’Brien, James Cook University Media Office, +61 7 4781 4822

McClanahan, TR, Marnane, MJ, Cinner, JE and Kiene, WE (2006). “A Comparison of Marine Protected Areas and Alternative Approaches to Coral-Reef Management.” Current Biology 16(14): 1408-1413.
Link to Full Text or pdf



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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