Coral reefs doomed for sure? Continued
smiller at gate.net
Thu Oct 4 11:20:03 EDT 2001
I've read with interest the recent email thread by the esteemed
scientists who contributed their opinions and expertise about the causes
of coral reef decline and the fate of coral reefs. Thanks to all who
have taken the time (and have the nerve) to contribute in this public
My experience is related to what I've seen in the Caribbean and the work
I've done in Florida. My experience also dates to the late 1970s before
the devastation of white band disease and the loss of Diadema reshaped
the way most reefs look and function in the Caribbean and Florida.
Fishing was also significant as was coastal development back then, so I
recognize and agree that multiple factors are responsible for coral reef
decline. However, against this background of devastation and change I'd
like to suggest a few positive things to help balance the gloom and
First, we have victories to claim related to new marine protected
areas. And while it's uncertain what effect the MPAs will have on
corals, we know that a result of protection will be more and larger
fish, and increased numbers of invertebrates related to fishing and the
aquarium trade. This is the most important positive ACTION being done to
protect coral reefs at local and regional scales. Public support to
establish marine reserves is strong, and fewer hurdles exist to
establish reserves than are typically associated with trying to mitigate
the effects of existing coastal development. Eventually, success
stories related to the effectiveness of marine reserves will reinforce
the public will to fight for more and larger reserves.
Second, there will be battles to fight to save individual reefs that
still survive in relatively good condition as developers try to claim
more of the coast. There will be success stories here too. This is, I
believe, what Bob was talking about when he said that we need to be
selective about what reefs we try and save.
As the current email thread suggests, a lot of effort is currently
directed toward a big question - will coral reefs survive? Without
getting into semantics about how to define a coral reef, the answer to
this question is already clear for the previously widespread
acropora-dominated Caribbean coral reefs: they are gone. A. palmata and
A. cervicornis (the only two species of Acropora in the Caribbean, maybe
three if you include A. prolifera) are not extinct but they are
currently reduced to scattered fragments or remnants of their former
abundance and distribution. Something similar happened when billions of
trees were lost in the northeast and midwest, when Chestnut Blight and
Dutch Elm Disease ravaged landscapes. But we still have forests because
other species filled in. Unfortunately for Caribbean reefs, where coral
species richness is limited, there are no replacement species for
Acropora. By comparison, the Pacific has about 25 species of Acropora.
Cycles of damage and recovery from storms and Acanthaster are well
documented in the Pacific. Only declines are found in the Caribbean.
The point here is that ecology matters too, especially related to
species richness and the ability of a reef (or region) to recover - or
Back to something positive. The distinction above highlighting the loss
of the shallow Acropora reefs is important because there are vast
stretches of shallow and deep hard-bottom communities throughout the
Caribbean and Florida that are characterized by low hard coral cover
that are probably little changed over the same time period, and these
communities are extremely significant as a coastal resource. They may
not fit some definitions of a coral reef, but they are extremely diverse
and they support significant fisheries. They may also be sites where
reefs develop in the future. Thus, the reefs that are typically
described as the ones that need "saving" represent only a fraction of
total coral habitat along most coasts. But people care about the pretty
places. An important question to ask, spinning off from the larger
debate about coral survival, is: can scientists contribute in a
meaningful way to save or protect coral reefs?
First, I think debate among coral reef scientists about survival at
geologic vs. ecologic time scales, adaptation vs. acclimation, and even
the definition of a coral reef while important within the discipline,
does not help the public understand the problem, and it provides
marginal help to managers faced with solving problems. The public
doesn't know what to believe because they get nearly all their
information from the press, and the press takes the easy way out by
reporting conflict and controversy. This distracts from what I believe
are important take-home messages about the condition of coral reefs, and
their fate. Again, referencing the Caribbean, I think the public needs
to know that it's already too late for most of the reefs people want to
save. In Florida, the trajectory of many offshore reefs, previously
dominated by Acroporids, is likely toward hard bottom communities. I'm
sure this statement will throw the environmental advocacy groups into a
fit. Note that the deeper reefs have been this way for thousands of
years as evidenced by the thin Holocene veneer on top of the Pleistocene
foundation. I believe that if people understand how bad things are then
you have a chance to make them care. Unfortunately, few coral reef
scientists are trained or talented enough to connect in meaningful ways
with the public on a regular basis. But we must try.
For what it's worth, a good example that I use that seems to resonate
with public groups is related to the devastation of our "landscapes"
caused by Dutch Elm Disease and Chestnut Blight (as mentioned above).
Before and after pictures make a useful point about losing these trees
to disease. I then show what's happened to our "seascape" in the
Caribbean as a result of whiteband disease, blackband disease, White
Plague Type II, AND coral bleaching. The before and after coral reef
pictures are quite dramatic. The point is easy to make that the
underwater coral reef realm has changed dramatically and most people are
shocked when they learn the geographic scale of the problem. You might
be surprised to learn that the public approves substantial funding to
fight Dutch Elm Disease at local levels ($2 million alone in Winnipeg
each year). A fraction of this amount is spent annually to study all
coral diseases, and of course almost nothing is being done in a
practical manner to understand the cause of coral disease, or to treat
coral disease. Few marine scientists are even trained to address the
coral disease challenges. After this example I find it easier to talk
additionally about global change (warming, and yes, even carbonate
chemistry) and pollution threats to reefs, and the value of coral reefs.
So, one thing we can do is to talk (and write) about coral reefs in
more public forums, explain factors affecting the loss and condition of
coral reefs, and explain what we do and why it's important. If what you
do isn't easily explained to the public, or relevant to their interests,
you might consider diverting some of your effort to more relevant
projects. I predict that funding agencies will be responsive to this
We need to talk more about marine reserves too. People respond to the
idea that we need to protect the ocean like we protect National Parks.
And we need to do more than just talk about reserves. As scientists, we
better be ready with research programs to document what happens to our
ocean when it's protected. We need to help managers with results that
can be used to implement and maintain the next generation of protected
areas. This is perhaps the greatest challenge to coral reef scientists
and managers who want to do something practical and visible in their own
lifetimes. So, talking and fighting for marine reserves are two more
things we can do to help save the best reefs that remain. And our
research programs should contribute to knowledge about how marine
reserves function. But against a backdrop of perhaps overwhelming
global influence does it really matter whether or not we engage in the
fight to save coral reefs? In my opinion, yes. It's clear that we can
make things worse at the local level by polluting and over fishing our
coastal systems. For this reason it's important to fight these battles
to give our existing best sites a chance to survive.
Finally, coral reef scientists have been wrong before about the fate of
coral reefs. The Acanthaster story is a good example, but I'm sure we
could all tell stories about how we got something wrong during our
careers. One of our former staff (Dave Ward) printed t-shirts after
working several years with marine scientists, helping them dive, fixing
their equipment, and running boats. The t-shirt quoted Einstein, "If
we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research,
would it?" Dave's observation was classic and he couldn't print the
shirts fast enough. So, what about the big questions asked and
answered during the current email thread? Could corals adapt to warmer
temperatures in meaningful ways? Maybe. Could we be surprised about
what we don't know related to the saturation kinetics of carbonate in
seawater and global warming? Maybe. Do disease resistant strains of
coral exist that might repopulate our reefs in Florida? Maybe. Will
Diadema recover? Maybe. Will innovative reef restoration methods ever
scale up to the reef level? Maybe. Will the public embrace marine
reserves? Probably (they already have). Will scientists discover
important things about coral reef ecosystems as marine reserves mature?
It seems to me that it's too early to give up on coral reefs.
Spectacular reefs still exist in Florida and I'm sure that most on this
list could say the same for places they know throughout the Caribbean.
For now, there's too much work to be done that can still make a
difference in our lives and the lives of our children.
Regards to all.
Steven Miller, Ph.D.
National Undersea Research Center
University of North Carolina at Wilmington
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