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All World Heritage Marine sites urgently require a comprehensive and sustained program of action aimed at building resilience to give them their best chance to survive in the long-term.

The Future of the World Heritage Convention for Marine Conservation, UNESCO World Heritage Marine Centre, September 2016

Project Overview

The Resilient Reefs initiative is a four-year, $US9 million global effort to build the capacity of five World Heritage coral reef communities to respond to climate change.

This is a world first – coral reef managers working with global resilience experts and local community stakeholders to build and embed holistic resilience into managing World Heritage coral reef sites.


To ensure the world’s most enigmatic coral reefs are managed to maintain biodiversity, ecosystem function and social value to associated communities in the long term and inspire similar approaches across coral reefs globally.

Program support to World Heritage coral reef sites includes

  • Capacity building for local reef managers and stakeholders
  • Support in the creation and funding of a new Chief Resilience Office (CRO) position, who will be responsible for leading the site’s resilience building efforts
  • Detailed support in the development of a holistic Resilience Strategy focused on risk analysis and stakeholder engagement
  • Initial funding to implement actions designed in the strategy
  • Connection to a global Knowledge Network that supports learning exchanges among the 5 sites and scales lessons learned to reef managers globally

Inaugural accelerator workshop, Great Barrier Reef

World Heritage Listed coral reefs

World Heritage-listed coral reef sites are the jewels in the crown of the world’s coral reefs. 

A World Heritage listing demonstrates a site’s ecological significance, outstanding universal value, exceptional biodiversity and natural beauty.

Five World Heritage-listed coral reef sites have been selected

Reef Resilience

Healthy coral reefs are essential to the future of the planet. They are the most biodiverse of all ocean ecosystems, supporting 25 percent of all marine life in the oceans. Beyond beauty and richness of biodiversity, reefs deliver real economic values internationally. The livelihoods and wellbeing of almost one billion people across 101 countries is supported by coral reefs. Based on the provision of food, recreation, and protection from storms, they provide an estimated $10 trillion in ecosystem services.

However, an estimated 75 percent of all coral reefs are under threat from the combination of local stresses and global climate change. Sea levels are rising, bleaching events are becoming more frequent, and intensity of storms becoming more severe. Faced with a crisis that exceeds modern experience, business-as-usual approaches for managing coral reefs are no longer sufficient, and new approaches that are matched to the scale and the urgency of the challenges faced are urgently needed. Management and decision-making needs to be forward-looking, responsive and flexible to address the rapidly changing landscape of risk. 

Coral Bleaching
COTS Swains diver IMG_2560.JPG
Waves on reef

At a time when the global natural environment is under threat from the pressures of humankind, particularly climate change, it has never been more important to take a holistic and integrated approach to reef management. Building a resilient reef ecosystem sustains communities including cultures, livelihoods, and food security. It retains biodiversity and gives the best hope in the face of climate change.  

The size of the challenges facing coral reefs can be overwhelming, and managers urgently needs help to develop and implement a coordinated and strategic plan of action. That is the motivation for developing Resilient Reefs.

Resilient Reefs will provide reef managers with the tools required, and guidance, to create site specific strategies to sustain the ecological and economic longevity of the reefs and the communities that rely upon them.

Why resilience?

  • Business-as-usual approaches for managing coral reefs are no longer sufficient
  • Scale and urgency of challenges need new approaches, now
  • Reef managers must think and act in an integrated fashion with local community and governance partners who also impact and depend on the reef
  • Innovation, adaptability and resilience need to be embedded in local management

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How did the project come about?

At a UNESCO World Heritage Marine Managers conference in 2016, coral reef managers from around the world spoke about being ill-equipped to tackle the challenges facing their reefs. Of the 46 sites represented at that meeting, only the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park had a comprehensive strategic plan in place to boost reef resilience in the face of climate change and local stresses - a plan that expired in 2017. In response, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation had the idea to create a world-first network of global marine managers. The GBRF worked to bring this vision to life and secured support to fund the initiative from the BHP Foundation’s Environmental Resilience Global Signature Program.

Why were these 5 sites selected?

These sites were selected for several reasons, including:

  • local leadership is engaged and ready to take action;
  • they are among the most ecologically significant and exceptionally biodiverse coral reefs on the planet;
  • World Heritage sites can be especially influential proof points for other sites around the world; and
  • their diversity in size, scale, and management will enrich the field with examples of how to deliver solutions in many different contexts.

In the future, the ambition is to expand the program to work with more sites around the world. Now the focus is on developing the program and learnings with these five pilot sites.

How is the Resilient Reefs Initiative different from other programs?

The Resilient Reefs Initiative is taking a new and holistic approach to enabling coral reef communities to build their resilience to climate change. 

The health of coral reef ecosystems affects the livelihoods and cultural heritage of the surrounding communities. Resilient Reefs partners with the sites to understand the resilience of their coral reefs and the communities that depend on them, developing solutions that strengthen both the community and the reef. 

To do this, the Resilient Reefs Initiative is leveraging the learnings and expertise from global resilience-building programs from other domains, including those from the world’s largest proven resilience-building model – 100 Resilient Cities, pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation – and coupling them with the brightest minds in coral reef resilience. This work is explicitly about engaging new voices and perspectives and building long term local capacity. If successful, the Resilient Reefs Initiative will develop the first fully integrated and transferable model for embedding resilience-based management for coral reefs and the communities they support.

Climate change is the biggest threat to coral reefs globally, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting that coral reefs would decline by 70-90% with global warming of 1.5 degrees. The impact of climate change on coral reefs around the world means that the window to act is narrowing, so the timing and delivery of this project is critical to their survival, in addition to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. With ‘business as usual’ approaches falling short of creating the impact needed to sustain coral reefs globally, a collaboration of partners has developed a new way of thinking to respond to the scale and severity of the challenge posed by climate change to coral reefs. 

How does the work of the 100 Resilient Cities project inform this project?

Site-specific coral reef expertise will be combined with learnings from the proven resilience-building model of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative (100RC). Specifically, Resilient Reefs will adopt the successful concept of creating Chief Resilience Officers (CROs) from 100RC, which pioneered the first CROs in cities around the world. The Resilient Reefs CROs will be key catalysts for change. They will serve as 'point person' for each reef manager's comprehensive efforts on resilience, working across the reef system locally (including extensive engagement with external stakeholders), as well as being an ambassador globally. While the CROs' salaries will be funded by the Resilient Reefs Initiative, the CROs will be based in the local authorities at each site and will help coordinate local resilience planning and action. This is one of the ways the initiative seeks to embed resilience-based management, ensuring local authorities have the capacity to do this work, and that outcomes are enduring.

Is this project fund by the Australian Government?

The Resilient Reefs Initiative is a collaboration between UNESCO, Great Barrier Reef Foundation, BHP Foundation, The Nature Conservancy’s Reef Resilience Network, 100 Resilient Cities and AECOM (as delivery partner). 

It is not funded by the Australian Government.

Resilient Reefs is a collaboration between

Implementation partner

World Heritage Site Partners

Myriam Marcon (New Caledonia), Beverly Wade (Belize), Arvid Hogstrom (Ningaloo), David Wachenfeld (Great Barrier Reef), Yimnang Golbuu (Palau)

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