Guidance system for resilience-based management of the Great Barrier Reef

Peter Mumby
Led by: Prof Peter Mumby, UQ


Project Summary

Reefs vary in their risk of damage, recoverability, and responsiveness to management. Deciding where to prioritise action to maximise reef health is complex. This project delivers a guidance system to implement Resilience-Based Management and demonstrates its application in the Whitsunday and Cairns regions. The guidance system will constitute a desktop software that enables users to prioritise which reefs to manage, and potentially restore, in order to maximise ecological and socio-economic outcomes. Outputs will help GBRMPA (1) make tactical and dynamic decisions; (2) provide scenarios of reef futures to support the 2019 Outlook reporting, (3) support RIMReP by identifying target reef recovery rates; and (4) contribute to the Integrated Pest Management system to control COTS.


Project Publications
Final Report
Baseline Report




Project Description

The GBR is impacted by many types of disturbance and reefs vary in their ability to recover and in their responsiveness to management. A key challenge for management agencies is to prioritise where to act and which tools to implement in order to minimise damage and maximise the recovery potential of reefs. These decisions will change tactically in response to new events like cyclones. The principles of Resilience-based Management (RBM) are designed to meet this challenge. RBM does not necessarily change the type of actions managers use such as Special Management Areas, CoTS control efforts, no anchoring, local fisheries closures, and so on. Rather, RBM asks where and when such actions can be best deployed to maximise recovery of the reef and support the social, cultural, and economic benefits it provides. This project will develop a Guidance system in partnership with the GBRMPA to enable tactical and strategic decisions to be made. The Guidance system will be a software application that harnesses a range of data inputs and allows users to compare the efficacy of different intervention strategies and therefore improve the efficiency and impact of management.

The science base to support GBR decision-making is one of the richest in the world and several recent developments, including the operationalisation of eReefs, now makes a formal RBM guidance system possible. The development of a RBM guidance system requires five activities, though most run in parallel.

1) Map current state of the reef and deliver online

Dynamic changes in reef state, particularly after major disturbances, will strongly influence decisions on where to manage. While it is not the responsibility of this project to create online GIS for the wider research community (which falls under RIMReP’s mandate), we will pool available data to maintain maps of reef state for use in developing and prototyping the RBM guidance system. Data sources include long-term monitoring data, reconnaissance surveys, and data from citizen scientists. Gaps will be filled by a combination of statistical models (e.g., work led by Camille Mellin & Ken Anthony) and field-tested ecological models. There are indications that RIMReP will develop an extension to ‘Eye on the Reef’ to act as an online repository for data collected by citizen scientists, including GBR Citizens. Instructions on what citizens should observe, both reliably and usefully, will be provided by the sister NESP project (4.6), ‘Recommendations to maintain reef functioning of the Great Barrier Reef’. Note that discussions are on-going with Google and it is possible that they may invest in this area. Either way, maps will become publically available via the Google Earth platform.

2) Map social, cultural, and economic values

Consideration of social, cultural and economic aspects of reef value and resilience will occur through a linked project – entitled Resilience Framework – funded by the GBRF. This project is being led by Dr Paul Marshall and includes several noted social scientists including Nadine Marshall. The natural scientists on this NESP project will work closely with Paul’s team to develop a terminology and dataset for mapping the social, cultural or economic importance. Maps will be developed through several mechanisms: (a) GBRMPA/RIMReP, (b) small workshops with key users (e.g., tourism operators), and (c) another new GBRF demonstration project within the Whitsunday region. Data will only be shared or made public where providers explicitly agree to this. Specific metrics of social and cultural values will be identified (1) through joint meetings of the NESP team and the GBRF’s Resilience Framework project, and (2) by utilising existing GBRMPA data where permission allows (which must be considered carefully for Traditional Ecological Knowledge). We will also consider holding a small workshop with Indigenous owners to solicit further data and will take advice from the GBRMPA. That way Indigenous people will have an opportunity to contribute to the assumptions and expectations of the Guidance system.

3) Map ecological values and ecosystem trajectories

Maps of ecological value will, for each reef, consider its (a) recovery potential (influenced by water quality, larval supply, ocean acidification), (b) risk of damage (exposure layers), (c) ability to replenish ‘reefs in need’ through high connectivity, and (d) risk of spreading COTS (low being desirable). A naming convention will be workshopped and agreed for reefs exhibiting different characteristics (‘lucky’, resilience hotspots, etc.).

Determining these ecological criteria requires the integration of eReefs outputs, connectivity models, and ecosystem models that have synthesized the broad science information base. Some of this has been carried out during the previous year under a GBRF integration project. Furthermore, several of the required exposure layers (e.g., cyclone probability) have been created by other projects including the NERP. Water quality has been incorporated into ecological models through the effects of sediment, nutrients, light and temperature on corals, algae, and CoTS. However, while eReefs provides excellent models of reef biogeochemistry, these have not yet been translated into ecosystem outcomes. Yet ocean acidification influences key resilience processes, including recruitment and growth, and is spatially variable across the GBR (Mongin et al 2016). Thus, ocean acidification is the last of the major reef stressors yet to be included formally into reef analyses and trajectories, we will take advantage of this ‘low hanging fruit’ and complete the essential linking of eReef biogeochemistry and ecological outcomes.

4) Match management interventions to reef characteristics

A series of workshops will be run with users (especially GBRMPA, DoE and Qld government) to agree on key decision criteria for the RBM guidance system. First is deciding upon the most useful reporting metrics such as coral cover health categories, trends in reef state, differences in the number of reefs in specified health categories, number of socially or economically important reefs in the ‘good’ or ‘very good’ condition, etc. A second will focus on selecting a menu of relevant and practical management interventions (SMAs, COTS control, no anchoring, etc.). Thirdly, we will work with stakeholders to formulate explicit assumptions and expectations about the impact of each management tool (e.g., change in coral cover or recovery rate that would be expected by deploying management tool A).

5) Create, test, and refine RBM guidance system

The project will provide the integration of science and management that forms a basis for developing a larger RIMReP tool. Importantly, the project will deliver a practical and functioning guidance tool for RBM, which is consistent with RIMReP goals. We have budgeted to develop this tool ourselves and employ a professional software engineer (Dr John Hedley) to operationalise its delivery in partnership with users. While the guidance system will absolutely deliver much of the support requested by users so far (Fig. 1, Table below), the lessons learnt in building it will prove invaluable should RIMReP wish to embed it within a larger system with integrated data feeds. Thus, this project will contribute to the design of RIMReP by piloting how data streams, monitoring data and models can be integrated to achieve management objectives. The guidance system will assimilate our current scientific understanding and integrate the results of eReefs and connectivity models up to 2019. Further updating of underlying mechanistic data would probably be required every 3 years or so. The housing and maintenance of such a system remains an active discussion within RIMReP and we will explicitly engage in this conservation at RIMReP meetings. We note that the GBRMPA has just been provided with additional resources to help build internal capacity in the resilience mapping space and we see this as a good avenue for hosting and maintaining data streams.

The development of an RBM guidance system is a highly integrative and collaborative process that formally connects several other NESP and related activities. First, we include direct collaborative relationships with existing NESP investments that provide empirical research that can be integrated to ecosystem levels, such as the effects of ocean acidification and water quality on reefs. Katharina Fabricius leads this research and she will partner with us in part via the joint academic supervision of Dr Juan-Carlos Ortiz who has an Advance Queensland Fellowship with Mumby and hosted by GBRF, Qld Government, and GBRMPA. Project investigators Mumby, Hock, and Westcott are also driving the NESP3 regional scale IPM for CoTS so these projects are integrated.

The broader range of NESP4 proposals are also linked through this project. Identification of coral bleaching refugia (4.2 – Brinkman, Steinberg) will be integrated into exposure layers; the implications of coral genetic diversity on future coral health (4.4 – Bay) will be integrated in ecological models; investments in decision-support for CoTS objectives (4.1 – Westcott, Hock, Mumby) will be coordinated with the broader RBM Guidance System (and Westcott and Mumby are both contributing 5% fte to each project to ensure this works seamlessly); and the project on reef functioning (4.6 – Mumby et al) will identify reconnaissance targets for citizen scientists and long-term monitoring programmes that feed into the mapping of reef state here. Essentially, the reef functioning project recommends what citizen scientists can/should observe and this project reveals how such data can be used explicitly for management. Lastly, this project provides the beginnings of a framework for use in deploying potential restoration activities. This is an active area of interest.

Development will occur through a staged process during which a beta version is tested and refined by users by 18 months into the project. We will continue to support on-ground management decisions throughout the lifetime of the project.


NESP 2017 Research Priority Alignment
  • In addition to the tangible benefits to end users (Table above), the project aligns with multiple NESP research priorities.
  • Theme 1: CoTS management (complements the link between IPM and other management goals for building resilience); Improve knowledge of cumulative stressors (linking eReefs and results of other NESP projects to ecological outcomes).
  • Theme 2: Improve understanding of consequences of climate change (specific trajectories of the reef for Outlook reporting); Develop practical intervention options.
  • Theme 3: Complements the focus on trialling practical efforts to improve resilience by providing a tool to forecast their overall systemic benefits to the wider reef. Identify regionally-specific management interventions (by running the RBM guidance for specific regions and trialling in Whitsundays); Develop and implement better tools, including spatial information, to support prioritisation of on-ground investments and interventions and assess their success; Explore opportunities for citizen science and Indigenous participation (direct link with Citizens of the GBR).
  • Intent to support RIMReP: Develops the science and management integration to support RBM and a guidance system.


Project Keywords

Resilience; Decision-support; COTS; Climate change; Outlook; Reef2050.


Project Funding

This project is jointly funded through UQ, CSIRO, AIMS and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program.