Sea of Change

Snorkelling with a clipboard and pencil in the Indo-Pacific region, observing hundreds of hours of fish behaviour and fighting for food justice in coastal West Africa is all in a day’s work for members of one of Lancaster University’s research groups.

Fish swimming around a coral reef

Lancaster Environment Centre's REEFS group (Reef Environments: Ecosystems Function & Society) is working to protect and understand some of the world's most vulnerable marine ecosystems and the people who depend upon them.

A recognised global research hub

Professor Nick Graham pilots a small dinghy across bright blue seas

Professor Nick Graham sets out on another dive

This growing team of dynamic experts – which encompasses Honorary Professors, Leverhulme and Royal Society Research Fellows, National Geographic explorers, as well as a host of research associates and PhD students - is working across natural and social sciences to deliver new insights into coral reefs, engage with policymakers and advocate for change.

Although the group is based on Lancaster University’s campus, many of the team spend weeks or months in the field, from investigating food security in Kenya and Ghana, to climate impacts to reefs of the Seychelles, to investigating the ecological outcomes of the world’s largest reef restoration project in Indonesia.

Professor Nick Graham said: “Coral reefs are one of the most iconic ecosystems on the planet, yet are under severe stress from a variety of threats. Hundreds of millions of people depend on them worldwide for their food, livelihoods and culture, and, in turn, societies shape reef environments.

We are a diverse and dynamic research group, now numbering 25. We aim to understand better and support stewardship of these complex socio-ecological systems. The group has grown rapidly over the past five years, with Lancaster becoming a recognised global research hub in this field.”

Coral reefs are one of the most iconic ecosystems on the planet, yet are under severe stress from a variety of threats. Hundreds of millions of people depend on them worldwide for their food, livelihoods and culture.

A quote from Professor Nick Graham Lancaster University

Discovering potential solutions

Lancaster’s experts are working to better understand this rapidly changing socio-ecological system, discover potential solutions for its challenges, and ensure the long-term future of reef-dependent societies and ecosystems.

Their work ranges from examining the broad processes that underlie the ecology of coral reefs to researching their fair management, enabling them to support diverse livelihoods and cultures. They also focus on how reefs respond to climate change, fishing and nutrient changes to build a picture of how they could look in the future.

The team’s work has captured the attention of international media, from Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 to BBC Breakfast and in publications from the Washington Post and New Scientist to CNN and Le Monde.

Through working in partnership with key communities, other universities and research institutes around the globe, the team has built a reputation for excellence both in terms of their research output and their focus on clear, compelling communication.

Some of their most recent work has resulted in a vital nutritional database about fish species being made freely available to people worldwide as part of efforts to tackle global malnutrition.

Led by Lancaster’s Professor Christina Hicks, this work addresses the fact that despite fish being an essential component in the diet of more than 3 billion people around the world, and an essential source of micronutrients for over a billion people in low-income countries, many of these populations lose their very nutritious fish through exports and foreign fishing. This research aims to tackle injustices and inequalities around access to seafood's nutritional and financial benefits.

Fish swimming around a coral reef with a large fish in the centre of the image

Photograph: Casey Benkwitt

High profile publications

They have also published work in high-profile journals such as Nature, looking at the impact of rats on seabird populations, which seriously impacts coral reefs. The group has shown how nutrients from seabird colonies leach onto adjacent coral reefs and influence productivity and ecosystem functioning. Fish grow faster, there is more overall biomass, the reef calcifies quicker, and key processes such as control of seaweed and removal of dead reef substrate are enhanced. They have shown that the simple conservation action of eradicating rats will bolster this fragile ecosystem.

Fighting for survival

Dr Sally Keith conducts an underwater survey

Dr Sally Keith conducts a survey

Photograph: Erika Woolsey

Meanwhile, a new study led by Dr Sally Keith found that mass coral bleaching events make it harder for some species of reef fish to identify competitors. This discovery has led scientists to conclude it could have serious implications for species’ survival – as further global warming increases the likelihood of coral loss.

Dr Keith said: "By recognising a competitor, individual fish can make decisions about whether to escalate or retreat from a contest – conserving valuable energy and avoiding injuries.

"These rules of engagement evolved for a particular playing field, but that field is changing. Repeated disturbances, such as bleaching events, alter the abundance and identity of corals - the food source of butterflyfish. It’s unclear whether these fish can update their rule book fast enough to recalibrate their decisions."

Unexpected discoveries

The group is also home to Lecturer in Zoology Dr David Jacoby, who leads on animal tracking, including long-term studies of sharks' social and spatial ecology.

In one intriguing study, he and fellow researchers tracked reef sharks for four years in the Pacific Ocean and discovered something unexpected.

Far from being solitary predators with no community, an international team of researchers combined acoustic tracking data with social network analysis to uncover some interesting new information. The groups of sharks maintained their social community bonds, regularly returning to the same section of the reef each morning before dispersing in the afternoon and evening. The data also showed that some pairs stayed together for the entire duration of the research.

This work is particularly important as more than one-third of all sharks and rays are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Having a three-dimensional map of how elasmobranchs use the ocean and how their populations are structured is vital in understanding their roles in wider ecosystems and determining their exposure to threats such as fishing and climate change.

The group is also boosted by a number of PhD students making important contributions to the field, gaining a fuller understanding of how coral reef ecosystems are changing. These changes are due to human pressures and climate change, from specific fish behavioural responses to shifting nutrition patterns in tropical coastal fishing communities and the power and politics of food.

More information

For more information on the work of the LEC Reefs group, visit their website.

LEC Reefs