Following the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, experts analyzed how impacts of the disaster were influenced by coastal ecosystem alteration, including degradation of coral reefs and removal of mangrove forests. A primary conclusion was that more-natural coastal ecosystems were better able to dissipate the disaster forces, withstand stress, and recover from the event, as well as protect coastal communities. In general, natural systems were more resilient. For more on this, see the UN Environment Programme’s Rapid Environmental Assessment report on the tsunami, available at

Coral biologist Terry Hughes of James Cook University (Australia) has co-authored recent papers in the journals Science and Trends in Ecology and Evolution on ways to support resilience of coastal and marine ecosystems to protect against disasters, including tsunamis and hurricanes [see box below]. Hughes emphasizes that restoring and sustaining these ecosystems must be done in conjunction with social and governmental improvements so that human coastal communities are resilient as well. Diversity is essential for this, he says – both in ecology (diverse habitats, species, and spatial distribution) and in the surrounding human economy (diversified resource use and employment). Below, MPA News speaks with Hughes about the implications for MPAs from his research.

MPA News: Your papers do not specifically cite MPAs as a way of fostering resilience, although you stress the concepts of preserving natural ecosystem values and protecting against overfishing – common goals of MPAs. In the context of building ecological resilience, how would you rank the importance of, say, improving water quality versus establishing MPAs?

Hughes: Generalizing the relative importance of water quality and overfishing is difficult because they invariably go hand-in-hand, and often reinforce each other. No-take areas – one form of MPA – are a useful tool for reducing fishing pressure, but they are effective only in a larger setting. If regions surrounding no-take areas are drastically overfished or if the water is polluted, then their effectiveness if compromised. No-take areas need to be co-managed with surrounding areas that are often heavily used by people.

MPA News: With regard to resource users, you cite the importance of building social resilience as well as ecological, such as through reduction of coastal poverty and creation of long-term employment. Is it possible to build lasting ecological resilience without also building social resilience?

Hughes: Sustaining and repairing ecosystems cannot be achieved in a social vacuum. Our recent papers highlight the emergence of an approach that links ecological resilience to governance structures, economics, and society. MPAs and no-take areas work only where there is local participation and support. A narrow focus on fisheries biology simply will not work unless the social costs and benefits of conservation efforts are addressed simultaneously.

MPA News: Your suggestions of ways to build ecological resilience to coastal disasters are similar to ones cited by other experts for building resilience to gradual climate change (MPA News 6:8, “Climate Change and Ocean Warming: Preparing MPAs for It”). That is, we need to restore natural ecosystem function, improve water quality, and decrease overfishing.

Hughes: The principles are the same: you must be proactive, anticipate gradual or sudden change, and build resilience beforehand. Of course, the immediate human consequences of sudden violent events (tsunamis, floods, hurricanes) makes them a priority for reducing their impact when they occur, and for bolstering the ability of societies and economies to adapt to and recover from them.

For more information

Terry Hughes, Centre for Coral Reef Biodiversity, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD 4811, Australia. Tel: +61 747 816665; E-mail:

Box: Articles by Terry Hughes

TP Hughes, Bellwood, DR, Folke, C, Steneck, R, and Wilson, J. New paradigms for supporting the resilience of marine ecosystems, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, July 2005, pp. 380-386.

WN Adger, Hughes, TP, Folke, C, Carpenter, SR, and Rockstrom, J. Social-ecological resilience to coastal disasters, Science, 12 August 2005, pp. 1036-1039.

Note: Readers who do not have access to these journals may obtain copies of the papers by e-mailing their requests to Terry Hughes at