The trouble with high profile reef science

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg oveh at
Sun Dec 3 16:01:40 EST 2000

Dear Mark,

I don't see that there is too much of a difference of opinion here.
Thinking globally and acting locally is a good call (even if clichéd).   No
one would seriously dispute that.  As someone who also works in Indonesia, I
am under no illusion as to the scale of "local" problems that face the reef
resources of that developing country.

The one viewpoint/opinion that I would dispute is the negative effect of
drawing attention to issues like climate change (which I guess is the major
point of your email).  The urgency and scale of the response to that
particular issue (as with blast fishing and water quality) would militate
that it would be very negligent to sit on one's hands and not make clear
expert statements or take action on the issue.  Recent effective
deliberations on climate impacts and solutions (or the lack thereof) in the
Hague emphasize this point.  Unless we are clear about the potential impacts
of climate change, the policy makers at the international level will find it
hard to take the urgent action required to reduce the scale of future
damage.  If you think telling them that climate change represents a serious
threat to coral reefs is tricky, try asking them to define a forest for you!

So - to the issue:  "how does one present expert advice on the problems that
face reef systems."  Controlling headlines would be useful but is
impossible.  Equally, and I think more damaging, the appearance of
scientists quibbling over which stress is "bigger and badder" may also lead
to non-productive outcomes and headlines.  I think we have to go beyond
these issues and provide clearer responses to those trying to find solutions
(and loopholes!).

As you and I have discussed before, weighing up immediate human needs versus
sustainable reef usage presents a similar (confusing to some) set of
arguments.  Similar "reasons" for inaction might also eventuate from this
situation.  Equally, negligence on Greenhouse by developed countries like
Australia, Europe and the USA may provide a convenient excuse not to take
action on local reef issues in Indonesia.  However, as we know, this
argument does not present a water tight or even logical argument for
inaction.  Hence a greater role for champions of reef protection such as
yourself.  Rather than dream of controlling headlines, you should be ready
with the argument that climate change will mean that reefs will be even more
vulnerable to local scale threats than before.  That there is a greater not
reduced need for action.  In the same breathe, you may also ask why
Indonesia is so intransient and impotent when it comes to real political
action at the international level against countries like Australia and the

So if we are into take home messages - avoiding mention or watering down
statements on issues at either end of the spectrum of problems facing reefs
is no solution.  The only solution is to make sure that policy makers
realise that climate change will make the management of local reef stressors
more and not less urgent. Given the coherence of assaults from global and
local levels, immediate and appropriate action at all these levels is
urgently required.



 -----Original Message-----
From: Mark and Arnaz Erdmann [mailto:flotsam at]
Sent: Saturday, 2 December 2000 5:45 PM
To: Ove Hoegh-Guldberg; fspsuva at; coral-list at
Subject: The trouble with high profile reef science

          While I certainly commend Ove Hoegh-Guldberg's recent response to
Austin Bowden-Kerby's "reality check" (ie, Ove's response that the added
stress of climate change and coral bleaching should only further INCREASE
our efforts to protect reefs from more localized stresses like pollution and
destructive fishing practices), I fear that the high profile science reports
that emerged from the Bali conference (and bleaching is certainly chief
amongst them) WILL HAVE the effect of drawing attention and resources away
from managing important localized threats to reefs in some important cases.
This problem is potentially acute in many developing countries (those
blessed with the majority of the world's reefs), and I am already dealing
with it in Indonesia. Because I believe this effect is unintentional and
perhaps not obvious to those of you who are based in developed countries,
allow me to briefly illustrate with an Indonesian response to two high
profile issues raised in Bali: coral bleaching and reef restoration science.
But first, a quick background on eastern Indonesia's reefs:

          As with Austin's comments, the majority of the mega-diverse reefs
in eastern Indonesia are neither touristed nor covered in green water or
mud. Moreover, the major threat to these reefs in the near term is NOT coral
bleaching - it is, undeniably, blast fishing. There is absolutely no debate
on when blasting will effect these reefs (NOW), whether reefs can adapt to
blasting (THEY CANT), or the scale of the problem (MASSIVE). If blasting at
current rates is continued on eastern Indonesia's reefs, there will be no
reefs left to bleach in 20 years. Perhaps most importantly, this localized
reef threat DOES HAVE local solutions - though local governments are often
notoriously loath to enact these solutions.

          Reef conservationists and managers working in eastern Indonesia
are all very much aware of the scale of this problem, and are working
desperately to protect what reefs are still left. Because the solution to
blast fishing includes enforcement and education, this inevitably demands
working with local and national government officials to acknowledge the
problem and dedicate resources to it.

          The problem with the high profile science reports streaming out of
Bali is that they provide an excuse for inaction to these same government
officials. Within a week of returning home from Bali, I was confronted by
several bureaucrats questioning the importance of our enforcement efforts in
the Bunaken National Marine Park, given that the "REAL" problem with
Bunaken's reefs was and will be coral bleaching caused by climate change
caused by pollution from the US and Europe -which they have no power to
influence. While there certainly may be some future truth in this statement,
it is highly counterproductive to our efforts here. And while I have the
resources and backing to counter these opinions, a small conservation NGO
working to protect reefs in other areas might not.

          A similar problem arises from press reports about reef restoration
in the Florida Keys - where a project to restore a single ship grounding
site might reach upwards of US$1 million. While such expensive techniques
are clearly inappropriate for restoring the massive expanses of
blast-annihilated rubble fields in Indonesia, the publicity accorded these
techniques can shift attention from important practical solutions aimed at
saving existing reefs to ill-conceived notions of big money development
projects to restore the destroyed reefs. The western-educated technocrats in
many developing country governments (certainly those in SE Asia) LOVE the
technological "fix" for societal/environmental problems, and are MUCH more
interested in applying for a large development bank loan to restore reefs
than in more cost-effective enforcement and education efforts to protect
remaining reefs. Just last week, I read a press release heralding a
brand-new Indonesian national project to restore her reefs using proven
techniques developed in the west. Intrigued, I read on, only to find that
the new project will use piles of old tires. Lots of them....

          My take-home message would thus be that for those of you involved
in high-profile science, please think carefully about how your headlines
might negatively effect important efforts in reef research and conservation
in developing countries - or if these headlines are even
applicable/important to the vast majority of the world's reefs. As one
journalist recently writing to the coral list said, the REAL  message from
all of this is that reefs are in deep poop for a wide variety of reasons, an
d we need to immediately combat the poop. For developed countries, that
might mean focusing on reducing emmissions and non-point source runoff and
insisting on eco-labelled food and aquarium products, while for developing
countries it includes stopping destructive fishing and overfishing
practices, changing bad land-use practices like clear-cutting that lead to
massive erosion and sedimentation, and perhaps most importantly,
educating/empowering local communities to properly manage their own reef
resources. The old environmentalist manifesto of "think globally, act
locally" is ever-more resonant today...


  Mark V. Erdmann, PhD
  Marine Protected Areas Advisor
  Natural Resources Management Project
  North Sulawesi Office

  PO Box 1020
  Manado, SULUT 95010
  Phone: (62) 811-433857
  FAX: (62) 431-842321

  Date: Mon, 27 Nov 2000 05:25:40 +1000
  From: Ove Hoegh-Guldberg <oveh at>
  Subject: RE: The Trouble with our Ocean
  Dear Austin,
  Interesting thoughts. You are right in saying that the research we need
  should largely focus on solutions. However, I disagree with that your
  that climate change and coral bleaching are stealing the show and are an
  for funding scientists etc. As has been stated in various places, climate
  change represents a threat to reefs on a scale unheralded in recent times.
  recent observation that 16% of living reef died in the 1998 thermal event
is a
  hint of the scale of the issue - not even Crown-of-Thorns never ate 16% of
  in a single year! While saying this, I also feel it is important not to
  the other urgent issues that face reefs. While climate change may distract
  must be also understood), we do need to consider how it will modify the
  resilience of reefs faced by other stresses. As has also been stated
  rising sea temperatures are likely to make reefs even more sensitive to
  stresses. This said, the added stress of climate change should increase
  decrease our concern and efforts to manage/protect reefs from the other
  local scale stresses (pollution, nutrients, destructive fishing etc.).
  Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg
  Director, Centre for Marine Studies
  University of Queensland
  St Lucia, 4072, QLD
  Phone: +61 07 3365 4333
  Fax: +61 07 3365 4755
  Email: oveh at

  - -----Original Message-----
  From: owner-coral-list at
  [mailto:owner-coral-list at]On Behalf Of FSP Fiji -
  Suva Office
  Sent: Tuesday, 21 November 2000 9:35 AM
  To: 'coral-list-daily at'
  Subject: RE: The Trouble with our Ocean

  > "From an economic standpoint, I'm not sure that a
  >live reef is worth much more than a dead one.

  A reality check from the Pacific Islands:

  The fact is that most reefs of the planet never experience tourism of any
  sort, nor do they have clouds of green water or mud covering them. What
  most reefs do experience is subsistence fishing pressure, and a fair
  of reefs also experience commercial fishing by local people with boats and
  access to local markets.

  In my opinion, the greatest economic contribution of reefs to the planet
  that reefs feed and provide for families... reefs keep societies alive.
  From this perspective, overfishing/destructive fishing by reef-dependent
  communities is a far greater immediate threat to the health of reefs than
  any other factor. If fishing communities are the primary threat to coral
  reefs, and as these communities own/control most (70%+?) of the reefs on
  this planet, shouldn't more effort be made to empower this group that hold
  the future of reefs in their hands?

  The emphasis on climate change, bleaching, and the like tend to steal the
  show. These issues may attract funding and interset the scientific
  community, but they are much less practical than focusing on empowering
  communities to manage their own resources. Could saving reefs be more of a
  exercise in cultural understanding and respect for the intellegence of
  rural fishing communities than a research driven one?

  >From where I live and work, it appears that a lack of global vision and
  educational prejudice on the part of the scientific community are as much
  problem as any physical threat.

  Austin Bowden-Kerby
  Coral Gardens Initiative
  Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific

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