Back in 1998, Scott Reef was a ghost town. Rising ocean temperatures caused by El Niño had triggered a catastrophic bleaching event that decimated the enormous reef system off the coast of Western Australia. The prognosis was grim—more than 249 kilometers away from its nearest neighbors, the Scott system had no hope of being reseeded by their coral larvae, a process scientists believed was vital to reef recovery. But just 15 years later, Scott Reef has regrown into the vibrant ecosystem pictured above, and its isolation may have been the key to its survival. Although the Scott system did not benefit from the arrival of larvae from other reefs, an abundance of plant-eating fish in the area kept dangerous algae in check and allowed the few remaining local larvae to hang on long enough to begin the slow but steady process of repopulating the reef, researchers report online today in Science. The reason those hungry fish were there to save the day? There were no humans around to hunt them. So while climate change may be wreaking havoc on coral reefs around the world, these ecosystems might stand a chance of bouncing back once humans are no longer around to bother them.
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