Coral reefs, the ‘rainforests of the sea’, are among the most biodiverse and productive ecosystems on earth. In turn they provide humans within critical ecosystem services in terms of food, livelihoods and coastal protection. Nowhere is this role more important than on low-lying and remote islands such as those in the Pacific, where the cultural and economic value of this ecosystem is at its highest. The continued productivity and diversity of coral reefs is however under threat within the current era of the Anthropocene where humans have become the dominant drivers behind changes in the climate and environment. Despite having thrived for millennia, these rapid and strong human-driven changes are seriously degrading coral reef ecosystems. The associated loss of these systems and their ecosystem services will impact the hundreds of millions of humans living close to tropical coastlines. While the effects of global stressors on coral reefs are relatively well understood, the role of various local human impacts and their interaction with global stressors remains under debate.
My work within REPICORE aims to improve understanding of relationships between local human impacts and benthic coral reef communities (or the reef itself) in the understudied Pacific Island region. Particularly, I address how various levels and types of local impacts can directly and indirectly influence benthic coral reef functioning. In turn, such information can be used to predict the future capacity of reefs to resist and recover from global climate-change related stressors.
The main objectives of my work are to:
1) Investigate how different dimensions of human activities (e.g. low vs. high resource exploitation) on small Pacific islands facilitate alternative regimes or ecological reorganisation within benthic coral reef communities
2) Where subtle changes occur within the benthos in response to human activities, identify which process or resilience-based metrics have the ability to capture local impacts and indicate system trajectories
3) Evaluate how can community-based management influence benthic community responses to local human disturbances on small Pacific islands
To approach this work, I use a combination of observational-, theoretical- and secondary data-based approaches. A field campaign in Papua New Guinea identified synergistic impacts of overfishing and sewage input on the state of the benthic communities, and in Fiji I compared the ability of different monitoring metrics to detect (in)conspicuous changes within benthic assemblages under local management. A secondary data-analysis encompassing a larger set of Pacific island reefs has allowed me to assess how contrasting levels of local impacts drive differences in benthic assemblages and the relative importance of their various environmental drivers. Following several field trips and discussions with local counterparts in the Pacific Island region, I have also become particularly interested in other regionally-relevant topics such as benthic cyanobacterial mats, as well as the ecological importance of sea cucumbers which are heavily exploited throughout the area.