[Coral-List] Poor terminology in coral reef research 6: Resilience

Thomas Goreau goreau at bestweb.net
Sun Nov 5 12:28:34 EST 2006

Recently the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Florida  
Keys National Marine Sanctuary had bundles of cash parachuted to them  
in order to "engineer resilience into the reefs" and to show other  
countries how to benefit from their wise and sagacious management.  
Nice for them, I wish them luck! Their own long term surveys show  
that the average live coral cover in the GBR is now down to around  
20% and steadily falling, while that in the Florida Keys is down to  
around 6%, but to look at the bright side, still has a little way to  
go before it bottoms out.

Coral reefs have been known since Darwin to be very fragile  
ecosystems, so all this "resiliency" stuff is really puzzling, unless  
its proponents just don't understand coral physiology and ecology at  

Around 10 years ago I was one of four coral ecologists invited to a  
big meeting at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences that was paid  
for by a large American foundation to show that all ecosystems were  
"resilient". Funding for future work was implied. I said that  
although in the past coral reefs had recovered in a few decades from  
stresses that were very localized in time and space, like hurricanes  
and ship groundings, because they had healthy reef all around the  
damaged areas, this had no bearing at all on stresses that were  
global in spatial extent, like global warming and new diseases and  
increasing land based sources of pollution, which were getting more  
intense in time everywhere so there was now no good reef to re-seed  
damaged areas with larvae. I was immediately treated like the skunk  
at the garden party, and the other three coral reef ecologists  
dutifully produced a paper ("peer" "reviewed" too!) that proved that  
coral reefs were resilient ecosystems (names concealed for obvious  
reasons, but you can google reef resilience yourself for fun).

After the tsunami all the countries affected were told by the  
"experts" (they know who they are) that reef restoration is "neither  
feasible nor prudent" (can't be done and shouldn't if it can) and  
that what countries should do is "nothing at all, they should just  
wait and the reefs will bounce back all by themselves". Any day now.

Let's admit that reefs are the most fragile ecosystem we know of, and  
use those proposing "resilience" as breakwaters against global sea  
level rise.

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

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