Capturing the cornerstones of coral reef resilience: linking theory to practice
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- Nyström, M., Graham, N.A.J., Lokrantz, J. et al. Coral Reefs (2008) 27: 795. doi:10.1007/s00338-008-0426-z
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Coral reefs can undergo unexpected and dramatic changes in community composition, so called phase shifts. This can have profound consequences for ecosystem services upon which human welfare depends. Understanding of this behavior is in many aspects still in its infancy. Resilience has been argued to provide insurance against unforeseen ecosystem responses in the face of environmental change, and has become a prime goal for the management of coral reefs. However, diverse definitions of resilience can be found in the literature, making its meaning ambiguous. Several studies have used the term as a theoretical framework and concern regarding its practical applicability has been raised. Consequently, operationalizing theory to make resilience observable is an important task, particularly for policy makers and managers dealing with pressing environmental problems. Ultimately this requires some type of empirical assessments, something that has proven difficult due to the multidimensional nature of the concept. Biodiversity, spatial heterogeneity, and connectivity have been proposed as cornerstones of resilience as they may provide insurance against ecological uncertainty. The aim of this article is to provide an overview of the divergent uses of the concept and to propose empirical indicators of the cornerstones of coral reef resilience. These indicators include functional group approaches, the ratios of “good” and “bad” colonizers of space, measurements of spatial heterogeneity, and estimates of potential space availability against grazing capacity. The essence of these operational indicators of resilience is to use them as predictive tools to recognize vulnerability before disturbance occurs that may lead to abrupt phase shifts. Moving toward operationalizing resilience theory is imperative to the successful management of coral reefs in an increasingly disturbed and human-dominated environment.