[Coral-List] New and old knowledge

Thomas Goreau goreau at bestweb.net
Sun Aug 26 19:22:02 EDT 2007

Dear John,

I'm sorry that you seem to have completely misunderstood my ironic  
note, which focused on the way that the media persistently  
misrepresent as "new" studies that confirm what was well known, into  
a personal attack on your work, which was certainly never intended. I  
am sure that comes more from the fact that the media don't check  
their sources, and so are very easily misled by public relations  
press releases by universities, government institutions, and large  
conservation groups, which claim that they have "discovered" "for the  
first time" what are really long known phenomena. This is related to  
their competition for scarce funds, and claims of novelty are  
manufactured into news from which more funding can be sought. In  
contrast, confirming what is already known is rarely popular, even  
though it is crucial to building up the body of scientific knowledge.  
As you point out, your papers don't claim that these are new  
discoveries, so it is clear that the misinterpretation presumably  
comes from those who placed these stories in the media.

You make many important points, both directly and unintentionally.  
First let me make clear that I am in no way criticizing the  
importance or quality of your work, which I am sure are excellent,  
and I am delighted that they lend further support to what we have  
known for decades, that rising temperatures are accelerating the pace  
of the reef decline we see world-wide. Were it not for the fact that  
both the (direct and indirect) negative effects of high temperatures  
on corals and the very fact of reef decline were massively denied for  
so long after they were blatantly obvious to all long term observers  
(largely due to political agendas and efforts to control the funding  
in order to "find out if there might be problem") such papers could  
never be claimed to be new findings as much as refining and improving  
the existing knowledge base. It is this massive denial for so long  
that has prevented all efforts to reverse the decline, or to change  
the focus to restoring the reefs that are so badly damaged almost  
everywhere we look.

With regard to citations, well the decline of reefs in the Indian  
Ocean and the Pacific, just like that of Caribbean, has been so long  
known by all old divers that there are, as you point out, thousands  
of studies documenting them practically everyplace where researchers  
have gone. With regard to the effects of temperature on diseases, you  
are quite right that the most widely cited paper claiming a link  
between diseases and temperature does so without actual data, based  
on a reasonable seeming hunch that the hotter it gets the more  
stressed corals become, which intuitively seems likely to increase  
the risk of disease or sensitivity to it. However, for over a decade  
field researchers have consistently noted that almost all coral  
diseases spread much more rapidly in the warm season, and slow down  
or stop in the cool season, so there is a very large body of  
empirical observations and time series photographs (such as the long  
term photographs of Craig Quirolo of diseased corals near Key West,  
and going back to time series photos my student Cy Macfarlane and I  
took of the spread of Yellow Band Disease in Jamaica in the late  
1980s before we recognized the disease symptoms, and mistakenly  
thought this was delayed recovery from bleaching in certain corals).  
This seasonal change is especially notable in the White Plague  
diseases which I have seen all around the Caribbean, and the so  
called White Death diseases that I have also personally seen all  
across the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific, which is  
also very sharply concentrated during the warm season in patches  
where many different coral genera are affected, separated by large  
areas where it is very rare. In terms of microbiological work  
Rosenberg, Ben Haim, Kushmaro, Loya, and colleagues also showed in  
numerous papers that Vibrio infections in the Red Sea and the  
Mediterranean were much more virulent at high temperatures. At first  
they thought the bacteria was causing bleaching (which also received  
much press) but in fact it is now clear that the zooxanthellae are  
not expelled but are degraded in situ by pathogen-induced programmed  
cell death, as has been shown by Cervino and colleagues (including  
Ray Hayes, Garriet Smith, myself, and several others) to be the case  
in Yellow Band Disease. Cervino and our group then published several  
papers showing that this disease, and several others, spread more  
rapidly when it is warm, from both field studies and laboratory  
infection experiments, and what is more important, that the pathogens  
grew more rapidly at high temperatures, and were more virulent to the  
coral at high temperatures. So, as you point out, it is well  
documented that high temperature exacerbates many diseases.

Another very important point emerging from your comments is your view  
that published papers are the only source of knowledge. In fact there  
is much larger and older body of knowledge common to long term  
divers, which it seems so many people seem to completely disregard.  
There is so much peer-review published garbage out there that this  
prejudice is hard to grasp, but basically there are very few  
published conclusions in this field that are genuinely new, although  
they is all too often presented that way for reasons of publicity,  
careerism, and the difficulties of funding in a rat-eat-rat world,  
resulting in the body of understanding that comes from long term  
observers, whether committed to paper or not, becoming a resource  
that is treated with ignorance, or worse, contempt by academic  
researchers who have not been exposed to it. Basically it is only  
when really new methods are applied that genuinely new conclusions  
emerge, and the basic facts, that reefs are in severe world wide  
decline and high temperatures are accelerating their loss, are not  
among them. What is needed now is an end to claims that we need to  
find out more about whether there might be a problem or not, and  
focus on 1) stopping all the human caused stress factors known to  
damage corals, 2) protecting the few areas left in good condition,  
and 3) starting large scale coral reef restoration programs in the  
vast degraded areas that are most divers and researchers, now see.  
The deliberate denial has simply wasted decades in which governments  
and funding agencies refused to act on what was well known in the  
field, and while we will never recover the lost time, coral reefs now  
just can't afford to lose more time for researchers rediscovering  
what was already obvious.

Finally I'm sorry that your misperception that this was an attack on  
you personally has led you to attack me, so it is important to set  
the record straight on your completely unwarranted comments on my  
"infamous" work. In late 1996 the Bonaire Marine Park asked James  
Cervino and myself to look at a completely unprecedented phenomenon:  
virtually all the large old coral heads in good health had in the  
space of a few months been killed all over their tops. This had never  
been seen before, and perfectly rounded corals hundreds of years old  
were deformed in ways that indicated that this had never happened to  
them before. We were baffled as to the causes but documented the  
frequency, size, and change in time of the lesions on quantitative  
transects, and  took microbiological samples from which Ray Hayes  
identified a fungus. Afterwards Andy and Robin Bruckner documented  
parrotfish biting attacks on these same corals, and found an old  
paper that had escaped us all, documenting a similar episode some  
decades before in Barbados. We confirmed the Bruckners finding, and  
isolated the same fungus found on the edge of the coral lesions from  
both the oral and anal cavity of parrotfish. Unfortunately the  
cultures were later lost in a lab move caused by funding cuts (as I  
recall), so we were never able to determine if the parrotfish was  
transmitting the fungus or if it was present in the coral beforehand,  
or if the fungus was a primary pathogen to corals, an attractant to  
parrotfish, or an opportunistic infection. Following this episode,  
the new lesions sharply declined in abundance and size, based on  
transects that we followed around Bonaire and in other parts of the  
Caribbean for around 5 years, and there have not been new outbreaks,  
nor has the fungus been found in the small normal parrotfish lesions  
now present. As a result almost all the surviving head corals, which  
were once rounded in a way indicating historically uniform growth,  
now have huge depressed tops with coral growth only around the edges  
(at least until Yellow Band and White Plague kill them), a morphology  
that was previously very rare. It is now clear that this was NOT  
normal parrotfish biting, not only from the shapes of the corals, but  
also because our major research sites were in a research preserve  
where decades of time series quadrat photographs had been taken by  
Rolf Bak, and where the world's longest and largest study of  
parrotfish behavior had been carried out (decades long and with many  
doctoral theses) without this phenomena being seen before. So far  
from this being a normal result of parrotfish territorial marking,  
this was a very rare and unusual event, whose cause remains unknown.  
It has not happened again, but the Barbados evidence suggests that it  

Best wishes,

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

     Date: Sat, 25 Aug 2007 19:48:28 -0400
     From: John Bruno <jbruno at unc.edu>
Reply-To: jbruno at unc.edu
  Subject: [Coral-List] Tommy Goreau's post on "More amazing "first"
"discoveries" in coral reef science"
       To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov

"Healthy coral reefs hit hard by higher temperatures.

Coral disease outbreaks have struck the healthiest sections of
Australia's Great Barrier Reef, where, for the first time,
researchers have conclusively linked disease severity and ocean

Sea Technology, July 2007, p. 62

The article goes on to credit NSF, NIH,  and the University of North
Carolina for this amazing "new" "discovery". Perhaps these are the
same folks who just discovered, also "for the first time", that
Pacific and Indian Ocean coral reefs were declining.

If these folks would only read the literature they would find that
none of this is new.

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

Tom, you seem to have gotten all worked up about thirdhand accounts  
on the
internet of our two recent papers in PLoS journals.  But it seems  
clear that
you haven’t read either one.  Maybe you too need to spend more time  
reading the
literature, especially before you criticize it.  The folks in North  
include myself and my graduate student Elizabeth Selig (the GIS guru  
Reefs at Risk in SE Asia), Drew Harvell from Cornell, Ken Casey-a  
oceanographer from NOAA, Bette Willis and Cathie Page from James Cook  
U, and
Hugh Sweatman-the director of the AIMS Long Term Monitoring Program.   
But of
course, our collective knowledge of the literature is doubtless  
inferior to

In the first paper we used an epidemiological analysis to quantify the
relationship between ocean temperature and outbreaks of white  
syndrome on the
GBR.  The survey data were collected by AIMS and included six years of
intensive monitoring on 48 reefs spread across 1,500 km.  The SST  
data came
from an exciting new Pathfinder product, which provides high- 
resolution data at
a grain of 4 x 4 km (compared to 50 x 50 km for the older products  
you worked
on).  We found a strong relationship between the frequency of local  
anomalies and the frequency of white syndrome.  Also, temperature- 
outbreaks only occurred on very high coral cover reefs (i.e,  
generally > 50%).

Before this study, there were certainly hints of an SST effect on  
coral disease
severity.  We state in the paper; “The hypothesized link between  
high temperatures and coral disease outbreaks is supported by small- 
scale field
studies indicating that prevalence and the rate of within-colony  
spread of
several coral diseases are higher during the summer [24–30]. Such  
changes in disease severity could be driven in part by higher summertime
temperature, but could also be caused by a variety of other abiotic  
that vary seasonally within sites.”

But until our PLoS paper and a related book chapter we published in  
your friend
Al Strong’s book on coral reefs and climate change, there was no  
evidence that population-level coral disease outbreaks (not including
non-infectious bleaching) were linked to ocean temperature,  
especially at
regional scales. There have been several reviews on this topic (e.g.,  
Hayes et
al. 2001, Harvell et al. 2002), and none of them have described or  
cited a
similar study.  You mocked our findings in your post; “this amazing  
"discovery".  If you know of another study that demonstrates this,  
please post
the citation on the list server (sorry, but your own unpublished  
don’t count).

The second paper published earlier this month in PLoS One is a meta- 
analysis of
6001 surveys of 2667 Indo-Pacific reefs performed between 1968 and  
2004.  It is
an meta-analysis of data from hundreds of other published studies, so  
in fact we
had to read a few papers on coral decline during the three years it  
took to
build the database.  We certainly didn't claim in the paper to have  
discovered…"for the first time", that Pacific and Indian Ocean coral  
reefs were
declining”, as you stated in your post.  I actually have not seen  
that quote or
even a similarly worded point in any news accounts, so I assume you  
it, or perhaps more generously, you “misinterpreted” the point of our  
We were very clear in the paper that we (as in reef scientists) have  
known for
decades that reefs around the world are in trouble.  In the paper we  
that “there is broad scientific consensus that coral reef ecosystems  
are being
rapidly degraded [10,11]. Yet there is little published empirical  
on regional and global patterns of coral loss [12] or the current  
state of
reefs in the Indo-Pacific (Fig. 1)[13]…Many previous studies have  
mass coral mortality events and ecologically significant reductions  
in coral
cover on particular reefs [15-19], throughout the Caribbean [12], and  
the Great Barrier Reef [20,21].”

The purpose of our analysis was to quantify the loss of reef-building  
corals in
the Indo-Pacific; when reef decline began, how fast is it occurring,  
and how
severe and widespread it is.  Yes, we all knew that Indo-Pacific  
reefs were
being degraded.  But Elizabeth and I wanted to quantify the rate of  
(in terms of percent absolute coral cover and area) and how it varied  
in space
and time at sub-regional and regional scales.  If you know of another  
quantitative peer reviewed study (i.e., not anecdotal observations  
published on
a blog) that has already done that, please post the citation on the  
coral list.
  But I am pretty sure none of your father’s papers or your infamous  
work on
coral-biting-parrotfish (and the “diseases” they cause) included this  
type of

Finally, as many other people have posted on the list before, please  
citations when you make claims about important published literature  
of which
only you seem to be aware, and that the rest of us fail to read and  
Otherwise, we’d have to take your word for it.  If all these mystery  
actually exist, then we could find them, read them, and improve our  
of literature (can you feel the sarcasm?).

Literature Cited
Harvell, C. D., C. E. Mitchell, J. R. Ward, S. Altizer, A. P. Dobson,  
R. S.
Ostfeld, and M. D. Samuel. 2002. Climate warming and disease risks for
terrestrial and marine biota. Science 296:2158-2162.
Hayes, M. L., J. Bonaventura, T. P. Mitchell, J. M. Prospero, E. A.  
Shinn, F.
Van Dolah, and R. T. Barber. 2001. How are climate and marine biological
outbreaks functionally linked? Hydrobiologia 460:213-220.

John Bruno, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Marine Sciences
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3300
jbruno at unc.edu

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