In a new paper, online now in Biological Conservation, Conservation Planning Group researchers and colleagues address the critical challenge of coral reef conservation in the Anthropocene.

The world’s coral reefs are rapidly transforming, with decreasing coral cover and new species configurations. These new Anthropocene reefs pose new challenges for conservation: we can no longer rely on established management plans and actions designed to maintain the status quo. The key questions now are: what do we want to conserve on Anthropocene reefs, why, and how?

Trends in reef management over recent decades reveal rapid shifts in perceived threats, goals and solutions. Future reefs will be unlike anything previously seen by humans, and while their ability to support tourism or fisheries may be relatively resilient, our capacity to manage them may be constrained by their new species configurations.

We identify a concerning scale mismatch between reef stressors and proposed interventions: while the number and scale of threats is escalating, the scale of current or planned responses is reducing!

Schematic illustration of the scale mismatch in coral reef management. During the 1980s, there was at least some correspondence between the scales of threats and responses. However, as the number of stressors, and their spatial and temporal scales of impact have increased, conventional management approaches are experiencing a growing scale mismatch. New approaches to conservation (e.g. restoration) are paradoxically going in the opposite direction, tackling global scale threats, such as climate change, with small-scale responses.

The paper presents a blueprint for future reef conservation that recognises the need to better understand the processes that maintain Anthropocene reefs, and the growing imperative to reform conservation efforts to address both specific local issues and larger-scale threats. The future of coral reef conservation is no longer one solely of localized action and stewardship; it requires practices and institutions operating at far larger scales than today.

Bellwood, D. R., Pratchett, M. S., Morrison, T. H., Gurney, G. G., Hughes, T. P., Álvarez-Romero, J. G., Day, J.C., Grantham, R., Grech, A., Hoey, A.s., Jones, J.P., Pandolfi, J.M., Tebbett, S.B., Techera, E., Weeks, R., & Cumming G.S. (2019). Coral reef conservation in the Anthropocene – Confronting spatial mismatches and prioritizing functions. Biological Conservation, 1–0.

Cover photo: Multiple configurations of contemporary reefs. (a) A typical shallow reef on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), prior to repetitive coral bleaching, dominated by Acropora corals. Increasingly, alternative reef states are dominated by (b) bleaching-resistant Porites (GBR), (c) rapidly colonizing ‘weedy’ corals such as Pocillopora (French Polynesia), or (d) low-complexity algal turfs (Lizard Island, GBR, after two cyclones and two consecutive bleaching events).

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