[Coral-List] Reef Remnancy not resiliency

Albert Norstrom albert at ecology.su.se
Wed Feb 22 09:46:53 EST 2006

Thanks Phil for starting what must be the most interesting discourse held on these boards in a long time. Some extremely thought-provoking comments all around. 


Yes, the Keys do seem to have it real bad, but this isn't a problem isolated to the Caribbean. I've conducted field trips in the Phillippines and Zanzibar during the past years and we are witnessing moderate-to-severe degradation in those regions too. The general feeling diving on reefs off the North coast of the Philippines is that of entering a ghost town. Fish abundnace is frighteningly low (you'd be lucky to see a parrotfish above 35cm after a week of diving), and community changes are rapidly manifesting themselves (we have observed some sites where soft corals are taking over completely following the bleaching event of '98). The causes behind this seem to be a confounding mixture of synergistic factors, just as in the Caribbean. As Alina points out, local factors alone (such as a decline water quality due to human terrestrial activities) cannot be ascertained to be the single driving forces behind the changes. As such, what speaks for a sudden improvement in reef conditon if we manage to address that single point - when the problems of  climate change and lack of grazers (due to a brutal historical overfishing and disease) loom overhead?


I found Jeffrey Lowes comment "Perhaps, if we took a longer view (in evolutionary terms), this extinction would not matter .... yes, the ecosystems that we know today might be gone, but other ecosystems and processes will replace them. Much good that would do for us, who have to see these changes taking place." interesting. How about I play devils advocate with you all for awhile. A few months ago, a very interesting point of discourse popped up during an internal discussion group at the department. The notion that ecosystems are intrinsically unpredictable and characterized by alternative system regimes is gaining more and more weight in the coral ecology community. It is thus interesting that we as a group (and society as a whole) are continually so ill-prepared for when such shifts occur. For 20 or so odd years the Caribbean has been dominated by macroalgae regime that seems pretty resilient itself (probably due a strengthening of certain internal feedback loops in that system over the years). I'm curious to know if any serious attempt has been made to investigate what goods and services are available from these new regimes (e.g. what kinds of fish can be harvested), and if fishing communities have adapted in any way, and if so are they succesful, to these new conditions?


For sure, I'm an advocate for proactive measures to foster resilience of coral ecosystems. (Already an array of tools have been suggested, MPA's being the most popular at the moment, but in order to succeed with this I think we have to witness a more fundamental change in our economic and social structures. How on earth will MPA's solve anything if market economy dictates that its economically viable to continue overfishing an already ecologically depleted fish stock in the regions outside these sanctuaries? Forgive the side-note, back to being devils advocate again.) But it seems equally important to create institutional frameworks that can foster adaptivity in social systems. The new macroalgal regimes could be the norm for the Caribbean for the next unforeseeable future, much as (from my own personal observations, and research) other regimes are becoming more common in other biogeographic regions. Is it "fatalistic" to start looking around us and maybe accept that coral ecosystems are dynamic and alternative regimes are not something aberrant, but a phenomenon we could (or should) get accustomed to as conditions change. Maybe the pressing question is, not if we can restore reefs to some abstract baseline level, but can we predict these new regimes (I think never completely, seeing the complex nature of ecosystsm) and can we adapt to them? 




Albert Norström
PhD Student
Dept. Systems Ecology
Natural Resource Management Group
Stockholm University
SE-106 91 Stockholm
Tel: +46 (0)8 16 44 84
Email: albert at ecology.su.se
Fax: +46 (0)8 15 84 17
Personal page: http://www.ecology.su.se/staff/personal.asp?id=119

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Jeffrey Low" <cat64fish at yahoo.com>
To: <coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>
Sent: Wednesday, February 22, 2006 2:49 AM
Subject: Re: [Coral-List] Reef Remnancy not resiliency

> Hi everyone,
>  Certainly an interesting discussion on the fate of the Florida reefs. Not being from the US, and never having had the opportunity to visit the Florida Keys, I am unable to fully appreciate the extent fo the damage that has been done to that rich ecosystem.
>  Mike, as usual, you have cut through the bs and succinctly stated the problem in the Florida Keys. I suspect similar situations occur wolrdwide, where reef systems are in decline (for example, I've heard from fishermen how their reefs have been destroyed by blast fishing caused by fishermen from the "other" island).
>  While sitting on the fence, and agreeing that there needs to be more science directed at the reef ecosystem, the impacts would seem to far, far outweigh the need for more exacting science. Conservation, and perhaps even the more exacting word, preservation, is needed, if reefs are to survive the human onslaught.
>  Someone mentioned (I am not sure of it is on this list or somewhere else) that it was a good ting that there are many coral species and only one human. Be that as it may, that one species has the capacity to totally destroy the diversity that exists today.
>  Perhaps, if we took a longer view (in evolutionary terms), this extinction would not matter .... yes, the ecosystems that we know today might be gone, but other ecosystems and processes will replace them. Much good that would do for us, who have to see these changes taking place.
>  MPAs managed in isolation, was something else that was brought up in this discussion. While it is undeniable (at least to me) that MPAs do help in the conservation of coral reefs and other marine ecosystems, the term MPA itself is an "isolationist" word, as it implies some sought of boundary. "Enlightened management plans" that look at the totality of the marine system, that will conserve and sustain our marine resources, understanding that it is inter-connected and intricately linked system, are what is needed.
>  I suspect that part of the reason that scientists treat reef systems in isolation is that if they did not, then there would be no "scientific" papers (as we know them) in existence. The momentum of publishing, or doing publishable research, is probably what is limiting the science from expanding beyond its narrow confines. Reef managers on the other hand, must not only be biologists, but people managers, ecosystem managers, fund managers, and sometimes, visionaries, all rolled into one. Good luck finding such people in great enough quantity to "manage" even the existing MPAs.
>  To round up, I agree with Mike that "people power" may be the way to go to get the necessary protection for our marine resources. "People cannot love, what they do not know", or so I've been told. While I cannot "love" the Florida Keys, I do love the coral reefs in my own backyard, and sometimes the wrangling that goes on between scientists, conservationists and politicians, while the reefs are slowly but surely being degraded, is more than I can bear.
>  Holding out for coral reefs the world over
>  Jeff
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