Brighter Prospects or Dim Future?

Gregor Hodgson rcgregor at
Fri Aug 29 01:58:23 EDT 1997

Brighter Prospects or Dim Future?

With all due respect to Judy Lang and John Ogden whose views I hold in
high esteem, it seems obvious that the 25 July Science article (p. 491)
showed gaps in logic and was biased as reflected in the headline and
statements in the first few paragraphs. I may be wrong, but I don't
believe that the majority of coral reef scientists and coral reef
managers (many of whose views were presented in the story) agree with
Science that the prospects for coral reef health are very bright. 

A careful review of the article suggests that the writer/editors became
confused about revised views on the effects of global warming on reefs
and current views on anthropogenic impacts on reefs. The lack of
separation of these two possible impacts on reefs causes much of the

When a major scientific journal gives a rare bit of space to the subject
of coral reefs, one would hope that they would present a logical,
objective view. This is not Newsweek.

A couple of examples of problems from the article are: 

para. 2 ".."some coral reef scientists are beginning to suspect that
reefs may not be quite as widely imperiled as they once thought.
Increasingly scientists are wondering whether the decline may be local
or regional rather than global in scope."

My comment: This has meaning for global warming but doesn't make sense
with respect to anthropogenic impacts. Can we write off the Caribbean,
but globally reefs are OK?

para 3. "But new research indicates that some of the more tractable
problems such as simple overfishing, may be playing a larger role in
reef decline...."

My comment: Is overfishing really a simple, easily solvable problem
therefore reefs have a bright future? Overharvesting is a major impact.

As coordinator of Reef Check, I have been receiving anecdotal progress
reports from dozens of teams around the world as they carry out surveys
of human impacts on reefs. Many teams are surveying reefs they are
familiar with. Few teams have come back and said that reefs they
previously saw damaged by human impacts are now in good shape. Many
teams have reported evidence of increasing human impacts (include
overharvesting) in areas previously believed by many of us at Bob
Ginsburg's 1993 Miami conference to be reasonably pristine such as
eastern Indonesia and Borneo. One of the greatest difficulties for Reef
Check is finding "pristine" reefs to use as a baseline.

I believe many reef workers agree with Jeremy Jackson's statement, "We
don't need one more bit of science to know there is a crisis. (p. 493)" 
However, as John Ogden suggests, we do need additional studies ----
particularly to characterize the rate of and reasons for the decline of
the increasing number of reef communities that are suffering damage so
that solutions can be selected and implemented.

The intent of my suggestion was not to "nail" the writer and editors,
who seem to have been confused by the facts and quotes, many of which
disagreed with the headline, but simply to alert coral-listers to have a
look and decide for themselves if a letter was warranted. If at least
one of these is printed, then Science readers, including funding agency
staff, will be appraised that decreased worries about the effects of
global warming on reefs does not mean that globally reefs have a bright
future with respect to human (and other) impacts.

At the Fiji meeting of ISRS in July, the members present agreed that
ISRS should provide a more activist role for the reef research
community. If ISRS members don't comment on a somewhat slanted, confused
article in Science, who will?

Gregor Hodgson, PhD
Institute for the Environment and Sustainable Development
Research Centre, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Clearwater Bay, Kowloon, HONG KONG
e-mail: rcgregor at        
tel: (852) 2358-8568      fax: (852) 2358-1582
Reef Check:

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