Phase-shifts from one persistent assemblage of species to another have become increasingly commonplace on coral reefs and in many other ecosystems due to escalating human impacts. Coral reef science, monitoring and global assessments have focused mainly on producing detailed descriptions of reef decline, and continue to pay insufficient attention to the underlying processes causing degradation. A more productive way forward is to harness new theoretical insights and empirical information on why some reefs degrade and others do not. Learning how to avoid undesirable phase-shifts, and how to reverse them when they occur, requires an urgent reform of scientific approaches, policies, governance structures and coral reef management.
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