Historical baselines of coral cover on tropical reefs as estimated by expert opinion.

Coral reefs are important habitats that represent global marine biodiversity hotspots and provide important benefits to people in many tropical regions. However, coral reefs are becoming increasingly threatened by climate change, overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution. Historical baselines of coral cover are important to understand how much coral cover has been lost, e.g., to avoid the ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. There are few quantitative observations of coral reef cover prior to the industrial revolution, and therefore baselines of coral reef cover are difficult to estimate. Here, we use expert and ocean-user opinion surveys to estimate baselines of global coral reef cover. The overall mean estimated baseline coral cover was 59% (±19% standard deviation), compared to an average of 58% (±18% standard deviation) estimated by professional scientists. We did not find evidence of the shifting baseline syndrome, whereby respondents who first observed coral reefs more recently report lower estimates of baseline coral cover. These estimates of historical coral reef baseline cover are important for scientists, policy makers, and managers to understand the extent to which coral reefs have become depleted and to set appropriate recovery targets.