Perspective: What does the future hold for coral reef ecosystem services?

Anna J. Woodhead, Christina C. Hicks, Albert V. Norström, Gareth J. Williams, Nicholas A. J. Graham

One of the last pirogues to be actively fishing in Seychelles. Photo: A. J. Woodhead
One of the last pirogues to be actively fishing in Seychelles. Photo: A. J. Woodhead

Human activity is now the driving force of what happens on this planet. But whilst people are shaping ecosystems, ecosystems continue to shape us. This relationship is connected to the benefits that we get from the environment, known as ecosystem services. Nowhere is this truer than for tropical coral reefs.

Coral reefs provide important services including coastal protection, food and jobs but reefs are also changing and declining. In this paper we ask: what does the future hold for coral reef ecosystem services?

Intuitively, we know that services come from the interactions between people and reefs. For example, for fish to get from reef to plate fishers need to have the knowledge and equipment to catch the fish. The fish need to be in a place that is accessible to them and there needs to be demand for the fish that is shaped by the needs and preferences of other people. Applying methods that recognise this reciprocity is essential for predicting what will happen to ecosystem services in the future.

However, gathering enough data on these relationships is challenging. We looked to methods used by functional ecologists that focus on traits crucial for ecosystem functioning. Traits can also be used to understand how ecosystem services are provided. By defining traits relative to people and ecosystems, we can draw on a useful set of tools for looking at how services might respond to disturbances in a way that better reflects the interactions between people and reefs.

It is highly likely that as coral reef ecosystems decline so too will the benefits that they support. However, we also propose that novel services could emerge. As technology changes for instance, more and more people can experience reefs in new ways, arguably bringing the benefits of these incredible ecosystems to new audiences.

Millions of people worldwide rely on coral reefs so it is essential that we continue to develop new ways of thinking and tools that recognise the many ways reefs and people continue to shape each other.

Read the paper in full here. This paper is part of an upcoming Special Feature: Coral Reef Functional Ecology in the Anthropocene.

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