[Coral-List] Management paradigm

Christopher Hawkins chwkins at yahoo.com
Tue Mar 7 23:01:30 EST 2006

Bill and All:
  I too have followed much of this discussion with interest, from the disagreement over resiliency to the realization by many that biology has limitatations-specifically in effecting solutions.
  Please correct me if I am wrong, but when I read:
  "While we are all in agreement that Florida's coral reefs are threatened, I argue 
that understanding the main causes of their decline (and their recovery) are of paramount importance in devising science-based management and restoration
strategies for these systems."
  I hear, "If we just do some more biology and ecology we will understand the reasons for the observed delcines and figure out a way to fix the problems"
  I, and others, disagree with this as an overarching approach.  I am hearing more and more from my biologist friends that the main causes and causal relationships re declines are fairly well described and understood, and there is now decades of literature (in one case a transect going back to 1917) documenting trends.
  While I am NOT suggesting that biology and ecological monitoring do not need to continue (they are essential to management activities), I AM suggesting that we are approaching management backwards. 
  Our current paradigm is one where managers (most of whom are recovering biologists) inherit enabling legislation (e.g. an act creating an MPA) and then set about to a) determine what science they want to pursue and b) determine how they want to manage the area.
  I find this approach arrogant, in that it points to the fact that one group of people assumes they know what is best and what needs to be done.  In isolation.  And certainly without considering in the management plan the slew of reasons why a particular place was set aside to be managed in the first place.  Take any MPA or coastal management act.  Review it.  You will find from the get-go it is loaded with social reasons for management (e.g. access, use, economics, cultural importance, spirit of place, etc.).  Now, take the management plan that follows, and that is in response to, the enabling legislation,  You will find biology, ecological monitoring, no-takes, closed areas, best hard science, and on and on.  The bottom line is you will usually find a management plan markedly different from the associated enabling legislation.  Why?
  Management is not simply about protection and preservation. We just forget that.
  So, our paradigm is backwards.  We approach management by first throwing out all of the reasons society deems the place important and is willing to pay tax dollars to manage it.  We then determine what hobby science we want to undertake.  I use the term hobby science to describe science done in a vacuum...not related to goals or objectives.  Science governed by itself.
  Recent economic valuations attempt to right this, but economics is a narrow slice of the pie.  It certainly does not go far enough.
  I do not offer a magic bullet.  There is none.  I am an optimist, but until we start recognizing that biology itself does not, on its own, do much more than describe status and trends, and in some cases point toward promising management alternatives, we will make no significant progress towards managing reefs with regard to the many reasons we love them.  And until we do that, until we fundamentally change how we approach management, we will also continue to see our research and management bugets shrink.
  To All on the Coral-List:

During the last few weeks we have read a host of 
different opinions
about what to do about Florida's reefs and also 
what to do about reefs
in general.  

Recent scientific papers and newspaper articles 
have admonished the U.S.
Government for not doing enough to protect the 
valuable reef resources
of the Florida reef tract.   While we are all in 
agreement that
Florida's coral reefs are threatened, I argue 
that understanding the
main causes of their decline (and their recovery) 
are of paramount
importance in devising science-based management 
and restoration
strategies for these systems.  The generally 
accepted model of coral
reef decline is that the shift from a more 
desirable, coral-dominated
state to a less desirable, macroalgae-dominated 
state was primarily a
consequence of long-term overfishing and/or 
coastal eutrophication,
making them more susceptible to other recent 
disturbances.  This model,
mostly based on weak inference and perpetuated in 
the literature by a
series of affirmative ad hoc revisions, has 
retarded ecological
discovery and confounded the direction of 
ecosystem management. 

For Florida's coral reefs the implied lack of 
management is based on the
hypothesis that the main causes of reef 
degradation are historical in
nature and the woes that beset this system are 
entirely local,
man-induced, and reversible.  While it is easy to 
take this view,
evidence linking overfishing and coastal 
eutrophication to coral reef
degradation in Florida remains elusive 
(specifically the decline of
corals and concommitant increases in macroalgae). 
politicians, NGO's, managers and the public are 
receptive to such
arguments because runoff from agricultural lands 
in the Everglades,
sewage treatment (or lack thereof) in the Florida 
Keys, or
overharvesting of finfish and shellfish are 
things that make intuitive
sense and also have strong emotional appeal. 

In the case of Florida, the catastrophic decline 
in coral cover
(particularly for acroporid corals) started in 
the late 1970s and was
empirically observed to be driven proximally by 
hypothermic temperature
stress and disease outbreaks, especially 
white-band disease. More
recently, long-lived mounding corals such as the 
Montastraea annularis
species complex have also been killed by 
ENSO-enhanced coral bleaching
and a host of other coral diseases (1983 - 
present). Paleoecological and
ecological data indicate that this coral 
mortality is largely decoupled
from changing levels of herbivory or water 
quality, and that reef
dynamics on a regional level are at best weakly 
linked to present and
past levels of nutrients or fishing pressure.  

Improving water quality and conserving stocks of 
reef fish should be and
clearly are high priorities of management, but 
the positive, localized
impact on corals will be minimal in the face of 
regional- to
global-scale stressors such as disease epizootics 
and increasing
sea-surface temperature related to global 
warming. Management steps are
already in progress in the Florida Keys to clean 
up nearshore waters as
well as system-wide water quality and habitat 
restoration efforts under
the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.  
When completed,
engineering solutions to improve the quality of 
nearshore waters will
only benefit the offshore reefs.  Unfortunately, 
no form of
locally-based stewardship, scientific management 
or scientific policy
including total protection could have prevented 
or changed the overall
trajectory of coral loss or ameliorated the major 
responsible for reef decline in Florida.  In 
fact, what we have seen in
Florida has been mirrored throughout much of the 
Caribbean.  It has
become clear, that regional and global-scale 
stressors now far outweigh
all local issues, however, this should not be 
taken to mean that local
issues are not real or unimportant.  

So what to do?  Without coming to grips with the 
global-scale, politically challenging stuff - 
reefs will be managed to
death at the local-scale.  Or should I say, reefs 
will die in front of
the very managers and scientists dedicated to 
protecting them.  Is this
a grim view of the future or a snapshot of the 
last few decades?  In
either case, we need to start thinking and actly 
globally if reefs as we
know them (or knew them) are to have a fighting 

Bill Precht
Miami, FL

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