Ecological function on restored coral reefs

University of Lancaster
Lancaster Environment Centre

Tropical coral reefs are on the ropes, battered by a barrage of local and global stressors. In turn, hundreds of millions of people who rely on reefs to provide food, income and coastal protection are seeing their livelihoods fall into jeopardy. Hundreds of organisations worldwide are responding by pumping billions of dollars into coral restoration – but nobody knows if it’s working.

Restoration programmes can re-establish coral cover over areas the size of multiple football pitches, but reefs are more than just their coral. So far, very little is known about whether these restored ecosystems provide the same benefits as natural coral reefs. For example, do restored reefs support the same biodiversity, deliver the same fisheries opportunities and protect coastal villages from storms as effectively as natural reefs? How big does a restoration project have to be to provide those functions? Until we answer these questions about ecosystem functioning, we cannot set meaningful targets, optimise methods or evaluate success in reef restoration.

I am uniquely positioned to carry out critical research on the ecosystem functioning of restored coral reefs. In collaboration with world-leading scientists (Lancaster Environment Centre Reefs group) and restoration practitioners (Mars Sustainable Solutions, Indonesia), I will use skills that I have developed over the last five years to discover how restoration can best deliver ecosystem function. First, I will use an existing database to evaluate the current functional goals and reported success of over 400 coral reef restoration projects worldwide. Second, I will measure ecological functioning at the world’s largest restoration programme, comparing functions on restored reefs with natural reefs nearby. Finally, I will repeat these measurements on natural reefs of different sizes, to understand the spatial scales required for reefs to deliver specific ecological functions.

This research will transform our understanding of reef restoration, allowing us to set meaningful targets and optimise pathways to success. When I share my work widely with practitioners and the general public, it will inspire diverse engagement with issues of environmental degradation and ecosystem restoration. In summary, I aim to discover how we can restore not just coral, but functioning reef ecosystems.