[Coral-List] resiliency, sustainable development, etc. [from Mike Risk]

Jim Hendee Jim.Hendee at noaa.gov
Wed Mar 8 04:01:06 EST 2006

[This message is from Mike Risk, who attempted to post it from a
non-subscribed address while on the road.]

From: Michael Risk <riskmj at univmail.cis.mcmaster.ca>
To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
Date: March 4, 2006

Hello Esther, colleagues.

This debate has so far proven to be informative, energising, and
depressing. I am moved to enter the discussion by your post, and by some
patterns I think I see in the exchanges.

>From the First World postings, I see debate.
>From the Third World postings, I see despair. (Although it could be said
that, if you are looking at the present problem and NOT feeling some
degree of despair, then you don’t understand the problem.)

First of all, I need to emphasize that no one from Canada is entitled to
speak from any sort of holier-than-thou bully pulpit. Our energy
consumption per capita is higher than the US, we have destroyed our
East Coast fisheries, and now are starting on the boreal forest. My
remarks are entitled to be helpful rather than accusatory.

Some passing comments on previous posts. It is interesting to follow the
etymology of the term “sustainable development.” No scientist could ever
have coined a phrase so internally self-contradictory, and it is
generally used by persons who have not the slightest idea what it means
(in Canada, they usually have degrees in political science, and know
nothing of value). If memory of an old CBC special serves, the term was
made up about 30 years ago, in the early stages of birth of the
environmental movement, by groups that wished to have a figleaf behind
which to hide their plans for development. So, just as one should never
trust someone who says “trust me”, one should be wary of someone who
talks of “sustainable development”.

Gene Shinn points out that the geologic record is full of extinction
events, reef comings and goings, sea level changes. He is correct as far
he goes, but I respectfully beg to differ from my old (in the case of
long-standing!) drinking buddy on emphasis. Most reef extinction events
in the record are marked by a series of bedding planes, sometimes just
one. The stratigraphic resolution does not allow us to conclude much
about the rapidity of the extinctions, and the causes are equally
obscure-although Evan Edinger makes an excellent case for the
Caribbean-wide Oligocene-Miocene reef extinction event, the one that set
the scene for the modern Caribbean reef fauna, being caused by nutrient
increase. We usually conclude/assume that reef extinctions have not been
instantaneous, but have taken thousands of years.

Two critical aspects set the present apart from anything we have
previously seen in the fossil record:
-the rate. To the best of our stratigraphic resolution, I would maintain
that we are losing reefs faster then we lost the dinosaurs. One century
will have seen them reduced to a few outposts.
-the cause. Severe damage was done to reefs in the 20th century (and
continues to-day) by humans.

The geologic record can teach us a lot about modern reefs, but we should
not fall into the trap of saying well, this has all happened
before-because it hasn’t. There has been some hopeful speculation that
corals will somehow “adapt” to climate change-this flies in the face of
all we know from the geologic record, and much of what we know about
evolution and adaptation. During climate change, corals die like flies.
Walter Adey has shown that, after a rapid sea level increase, such as
during the Holocene, it takes about 1,000 years for reefs to
re-establish on the new shelf. (Takes that long for the transgressive
seas to rework the substrate, make it suitably clean for corals.) That
was back when the oceans were clean and full of fish. This time, when
sea level runs up to its +10m datum, the oceans will have to rework
hotels, Hummers and humans. It’ll take longer than 1,000 years.

On the other, more optimistic side, Tom Tomascik has shown that, in the
clear, clean waters of the Banda Sea, a fresh submarine lava flow can be
covered with 100% coral cover in less than 10 years.

There are some more take-home lessons from the fossil record. Stresses
to which reefs have adapted for thousands or millions of years cannot be
invoked to explain the present decline. In evolutionary terms, reefs all
over the world know far more about hurricanes and cyclones than do
humans. Reefs in Florida have had the entire Holocene to get used to
upwelling-driven nutrient pumping in across the shelf. Nothing new here

Rick Grigg is correct in his early posting-there are Pacific reefs that
remain in great shape. “The solution to pollution is dilution.” Where
human pressure has impacted them, Pacific reefs are often in no better
shape than the Caribbean. He is also right on the money in his second
posting, re population growth. Those of you old enough to remember
“Pogo” may recall that great strip where Albert Alligator says “I have
met the enemy, and he is us.”

There is great concern now amongst reef scientists about the impacts of
climate change: coral bleaching, ocean acidification, sea level rise. We
do not know when the blow will strike: best guesses would say some time
in the coming century, but the wild card is research that shows rapid
climate change can occur in only a few years. Al Strong-I read the
plenary to which you refer, in which the author states that climate
change is “not proven.” Puts me in mind: every year, some sportswriter
in Toronto predicts that the Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup that
year. (To the uninitiated: this refers to a team which plays ice hockey,
a sport Canadian women do very well.) The writer gains instant notoriety
for making such a ridiculous prediction, and then fades back into the
obscurity from which he came. The CO2 increase is fact, and the reality
of climate change is now accepted by virtually every climate scientist
on the planet except Dick Cheney.

Let’s be blunt: when climate change is truly upon us, the human race
will have bigger fish to fry than to worry about coral reefs: where to
put 150 million Bangladeshis, how to explain to guests that the bottom
four floors of hotels in Miami Beach are accessible only by scuba...The
problem of reef survival will take back seat to the problem of human
survival. I will draw upon my experience in SE Asia for many of my
examples-here is one. Much of Indonesia runs on three rice crops per
year-four, on Bali. Indonesia has more coral reefs than any nation on
the planet, but if one climate blip causes them to miss one rice crop,
you will see reef conservation efforts vanish.

So I would suggest that speculation on the effects of climate change on
reefs is a valid intellectual pursuit, but of little or no value in
conserving what we have. We lost more than half the reefs in the
Caribbean before anyone could even SPELL bleaching.

Several postings have eloquently and poignantly talked about our waste
of resources. I note the truth of this, but have to point out that we
are preaching to the choir, on coral-list. We all share the same
concerns, else we would not be on this list. We need to reach the
outside world.

Yes, it’s true, we in North America consume too much. We can hardly deny
the Chinese and the Indians and the Africans the right to the same
lifestyles we enjoy, so the picture is bleak. There would seem to be
only two answers:
-educate the kids;
-emancipate the women.

We will only do so through education, in the First World, and that plus
emancipation in the Third.

There are some encouraging signs in Florida. The Southeast Florida Coral
Reef Initiative has focussed on land-based sources of pollution, and has
some preliminary programs planned or under way. But I still think we
can look to the Third World for some lessons, both good and grim. Six
years ago, in Paradise Lost (Mar. Freshwater Res. 50: 831-837), I wrote
that a Third World country would be the first to get a handle on its
reef problems, because “It is amongst developing nations that the
problem is felt most keenly, and it is there that scientific turf wars
and career- and reputation-building take a back seat to feeding people.”
(p. 836).

Esther works in SE Sulawesi, at the heart of marine biodiversity. That
region is also the ancestral home of the Bugis, a tribe of sea-gypsies
renowned for their fishing and piracy (they are the origin of the
“Boogey-Man.”) Several centuries ago, there was no problem being an
illiterate fisher-plenty of fish in the sea, no scientific papers to
read. Now the Bugis find themselves driven into an economic trap by
their own migratory ways. They are the skilled bombers of that part of
the world, buying the fertilizer to make the bombs from the same
middleman, “tauke”, who buys the fish.

The picture is not totally dark. If the rubble left by a bomb is not
continually agitated, it will cement down in a few months. The waters
where the bombers ply their trade are as remote as they can afford,
given the price of diesel for the boats, hence usually relatively free
from human impacts. Corals can usually be found recruiting in bomb scars
within the year.

There is great potential for societal change, also. Some blast-fishers
have spontaneously given up the trade, because they notice diminishing
returns. Others have been turned off the practice by being shown videos
of what happens under the water (strangely, many of them cannot swim,
and have no idea). These aspects of blast-fishing, and other aspects of
the human-reef interaction in Indonesia, may be seen in the documentary
“People of the Reefs”, shown a few years ago and available from the
Producer, Don Duchene, at DON.DUCHENE at NEXUSMEDIA.CA

Just across the island from Esther, and a bit north, lies the town of
Blongko. About 5 years ago, Blongko grew concerned about reduced fish
catches, and voluntarily set up their own fishing preserve. They chose
an area removed from town, so as to be away from any effluent. This
reserve is community-run, and community-policed: and it works like a
charm. The people began to notice improved fishing in the bay within two
years, and better coral growth in the preserve. Bombers are chased off
with extreme prejudice.

At the tip of Sulawesi lie the world-famous reefs of Bunaken. Fishing
pressure here is as relentless as everywhere else in Indonesia. One can
snorkel over some of the most wondrous reefs a human could ever wish to
view, surrounded by hordes of little fish. Overfishing by itself only
begins to affect the reefs when the people grow so hungry they start
taking the grazers. On Java, they have been reduced to eating Siganids
(don’t try this at home, kids) and the reefs are either going or gone.
And, before I leave Bunaken, it needs to be said that the reefs that are
closest to the sewage plume from Manado are already showing signs of
stress. Eventually, Manado will kill Bunaken.

One of the most telling examples from Indonesia is the diving excursion
from Jakarta out to Pulau Seribu (Thousand Islands). This may be read as
a journey along the history of reefs from the PreCambrian to the Recent,
or as a vision of the future-depends on which way you swim. But this is
not a journey for the faint of heart.

The Inner Harbour of Jakarta is beloved by local yachties. All they need
do is moor their boats there for a week or so, and EVERYTHING on the
bottom dies and drops off. Even blue-greens. No need for antifouling
paint if you have antifouling water. This would be the equivalent of the
toxic soup of the first oceans, in the early Archean.

Leaving the Inner Harbour, you swim through a biological desert. Nothing
living. Then some algal scums begin to appear on the sand, and then some
algae-covered boulders. With a shock, you realise that the boulders are
dead corals. This algae-dominated wasteland would be the equivalent of
the stromatolite-dominated seas of the Late Proterozoic. By this time,
you are 5-6 km out from Jakarta. You have swum over the locations of a
series of reefs that were rapturously described by Umbgrove 100 years
ago as being the most beautiful undersea gardens the human eye could
behold-Tom Tomascik has documented their disappearance, entire reefs
crumbling under the onslaught from the land.

Next, there are boulders covered by the boring sponge Cliona orientalis
(which is the same critter as C. caribbaea/viridis/etc). Colonies are
several meters in diameter. This is the first metazoan seen since
leaving Jakarta, and it’s a sponge, so you have reached the Lower
Cambrian:10-15 km from Jakarta.

After a while, you begin to notice bits of live coral here and there on
the boulders, and some time later, epilithic polychaetes and bryozoans.
So this must be the Ordovician.

The amount of coral gradually increases, until finally you reach the
marine park set up in Pulau Seribu. The reefs are still highly-stressed,
40km away from the city-this is to-day.

The parallels are obvious. All we need to do is locate our favourite
reef on this transect somewhere, to estimate its “health.” It would seem
to me that much of the Keys is in the bioerosion-dominated zone. As to
whether it will regress further and begin to resemble the Inner Harbour,
only time will tell.

This post sort of got away from me, and I apologise for its length. I do
tend to ramble on about things dear to my heart.


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