Bright spots shine light on the future of coral reefs

Picture by Tane Sinclair-Taylor

Picture by Tane Sinclair-Taylor

In summary: 
  • A new study taking into account environmental and socioeconomic factors may help tackle worldwide coral reef decline by identifying "bright spots and dark spots"
  • Bright spots are marked by strong sociocultural institutions and high levels of local engagement. Dark spots are marked by intensive fishing and a recent history of environmental shocks such as cyclones

Researchers have discovered a handful of "bright spots" among the world's embattled coral reefs, offering the promise of a radical new approach to conservation.

In one of the largest global studies of its kind, 39 researchers including UTS Professor David Booth conducted more than 6,000 reef surveys in 46 countries across the globe and discovered 15 bright spots – places where, against all the odds, there were a lot more fish on coral reefs than expected. Former UTS Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow David Feary is also a co-author.

"Given the widespread depletion of coral reef fisheries globally, we were really excited to find these bright spots that were fairing much better than we anticipated," says lead author Professor Josh Cinner from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

"These 'bright spots' are reefs with more fish than expected based on their exposure to pressures like human population, poverty, and unfavorable environmental conditions.

"To be clear, bright spots are not necessarily pristine reefs, but rather reefs that have more fish than they should, given the pressures they face.

"We wanted to know why these reefs could 'punch above their weight' so-to-speak, and whether there are lessons we can learn about how to avoid the degradation often associated with overfishing."

Professor Booth believes the paper, published in Nature, will make a difference, globally, to reef conservation.

"It's an amazing study and a very positive paper. It's not just observations, it's also about solutions."

Co-author, Professor Nick Graham of Lancaster University says that importantly, bright spots had a few things in common, which, if applied to other places, might help promote better reef conditions.

Strong local and traditional involvement in reef management, local ownership rights, high dependence on marine resources and good environmental conditions, such as deep-water refuges, were common "bright spot" factors the researchers found.

The scientists also identified 35 "dark spots" – these were reefs with fish stocks in worse shape than expected.

"Dark spots also had a few defining characteristics; they were subject to intensive netting activities and there was easy access to freezers so people could stockpile fish to send to the market," says co-author Dr Christina Hicks of Lancaster and Stanford Universities. 

This type of bright spots analysis has been used in fields such as human health to improve the wellbeing of millions of people. It is the first time it has been rigorously developed for conservation.

"We believe that the bright spots offer hope and some solutions that can be applied more broadly across the world's coral reefs," says Professor Cinner.

"Specifically, investments that foster local involvement and provide people with ownership rights can allow people to develop creative solutions that help defy expectations of reef fisheries depletion.

"Conversely, dark spots may highlight development or management pathways to avoid."

Bright spots were typically found in the Pacific Ocean in places like the Solomon Islands, parts of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati. Dark spots were more globally distributed and found in every major ocean basin.