[Coral-List] Goreau family "early paper"

James M. Cervino cnidaria at earthlink.net
Sat Mar 11 11:14:37 EST 2006

Coral and Coral Reefs
Thomas F. Goreau, Nora I. Goreau, Thomas J. Goreau

This paper, still the classic introduction to the field, was written 
around 1970, but its publication was delayed by nearly 10 years 
because the publishers did not think coral reefs were of sufficient 
interest to the public.

It was written at a time when large scale coral bleaching, coral 
diseases, and coral reef eutrophication were unknown, or confined to 
tiny areas with extreme local stresses. All of that changed in the 
decades after this paper was published, as coral reefs began dying on 
a large scale and the reefs described in this paper virtually 

Nevertheless this paper makes clear that even then the most 
experienced coral reef researchers were aware that coral reefs were 
exceptionally vulnerable systems and could be easily destroyed by 
human activities. We knew that they were highly sensitive, but did 
not yet realize just precisely how fragile they were.

It was only in the following decade that we were able to 
quantitatively establish the precise tolerance limits of coral reefs 
to global warming and nutrient pollution and found they were the 
lowest of any ecosystem. The temperature limits have now been 
established as 1 degree C above normal for the duration of the 
warmest month to cause large scale bleaching, and a bit above that to 
cause serious mortality (see other papers on this web site).

The nutrient limits above which massive overfertilization of the 
algae causes them to overgrow and kill the reef has been found to be 
1.0 micromole per liter (0.014 ppm) of available nitrogen and 0.1 
micromole per liter (0.003 ppm) of available phosophorus (see other 
papers on this web site). Along with the massive global outbreaks of 
new coral diseases that started after this paper was written (see 
papers posted on this web site), these new limits and the older 
scientific studies documented in this paper clearly refute the 
popular fad of "resilient reefs", which is now being touted by 
governments, international funding agencies, and large environmental 

This hypothesis claims that coral reefs will bounce back from any 
human caused stress all by themselves, no matter what we do, which 
cannot be supported by any long term observations. It serves as a 
smoke-screen designed to prevent action to reduce global, regional, 
and local stresses to reefs, and block efforts to restore damaged 

Those touting "resilience" claim that we "should do nothing at all 
and the reefs will recover all by themselves", are getting huge sums 
of funding from the US and Australian Governments and the World Bank. 
Their actions are directly responsible for speeding the rate of reef 
destruction and preventing action when it could have made a 

A few corrections to the paper are needed. The subtitle should say 
that reefs are the most species rich ecosystem in the oceans, not on 
earth. This unfortunate error was made by the editors, we were always 
fully aware of the unique diversity of rain forest insects. The 
drawings and maps were done by the magazine staff and are very poor 
compared to the original drawings we submitted, which we will also 
post in due course.

With these caveats and updates, this paper serves as an ideal 
introduction to corals and coral reefs when supplemented by the later 
papers on coral reef bleaching, diseases, eutrophication, and 
restoration posted on this web site.

Thomas J. Goreau, PhD
Global Coral Reef Alliance
37 Pleasant Street, Cambridge MA 02139

(Click below to download the paper in PDF form. (4.2MB)

Dr. James M. Cervino, MS, Ph.D.
Marine Pathology
Department of Biological & Health Sciences
Pace University New York NYC
Phone: (917) 620-5287
Web site: http://www.globalcoral.org

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