Researchers are concerned about the Great Barrier Reef's powers of recovery from bleaching, poor water quality and disturbances.
Scientists at the University of Queensland and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) have found a decline in the ability of the reef to recover after bleaching, outbreaks of crown of thorns starfish or cyclones from 1992 to 2010.
Dr Juan Ortiz, lead author from AIMS and UQ's school of biological sciences, says that during this time, average coral recovery rates showed a sixfold decline across the Great Barrier Reef.
The frequency of acute disturbances is predicted to increase, making careful management the key.
"This is the first time a decline in recovery rate of this magnitude has been identified in coral reefs," he said.
"The decline is driven by a combination of the legacy effect of acute disturbances.
"The future of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened without further local management to reduce chronic disturbances and support recovery, and strong global action to limit the effect of climate change."
UQ Professor Peter Mumby, of the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, said there was serious cause for concern but it was important to stress that not all reefs were failing.
"I believe there is scope for management to help remedy the situation," he said.
"Our results indicate that coral recovery is sensitive to water quality and is suppressed for several years following powerful cyclones.
"Some reefs could improve their recovery ability if the quality of the water entering the reef is actively improved."