[Coral-List] Posting regarding DEET being detrimental to corals

Mark J A Vermeij vermeij at hawaii.edu
Wed May 20 09:13:30 EDT 2009

Dear John et al.

Though I rather refrain from comments in issues like these, I feel that this case is illustrative of a bigger picture and hence worth commenting upon, i.e. it clearly shows the huge gap between coral reef scientists and the group of people that are "in the trenches" trying to protect the same systems that scientists study. While cooperation between the groups does exist (generally in the more well-off locations), many 2nd/3rd world locations simply have to figure out by themselves how to protect a reef facing heavy opposition from fishermen, developers, unsocial tourists, unwilling politicians etc. 

While it would be nice to have scientific evidence for every management rule imposed, the overall variability among systems, sites, countries and regions, each with their own unique set of "problems", simply precludes this option. What now? A common sense approach (often with the added benefit that it is easier to convey to non-scientists) might be the next best thing. In this case, one could reason that DEET kills insects and as far as I know invertebrates are much more sensitive to poison than insects, so yes, probably not a good idea to throw the stuff on a reef. Does DEET reach corals etc in concentrations strong enough to kill them? Nobody knows, but the first line of reasoning is sufficient to apply the precautionary principle in this matter. Voila, done for now. While this DEET-case is just an example, the overall problem is obvious: Should one wait for scientific evidence that does not exist (yet) before implementing a rule that makes sense?

Park managers that undertake action without scientific support therefore simply do the best they can and, as suggested, certainly don't jeopardize the reasoning behind other management actions (i.e. MPA, fishing regulations etc). An observation that typified the informal discussions during the last ICRS might be illustrative as well. In that big hall, one might remember little groups of people sitting together at a table, looking not all that happy. Further investigations revealed that these tables were generally manned by marine park managers from places of which none of us had heard of before. They came to the meeting to absorb information that could back up, improve or design management strategies for their respective parks, but felt they were fishing in an empty pond. Hence the sad faces. When they reach out, few people answer, if they ask for help, we question the basis for their actions. Try to keep motivated that way....

The divide between science and management has supposedly been an issue during ICRS meetings in the past, but it shows that both parties can to some degree be blamed for the lack of a strong interaction between the fields that study and protect/ manage reefs. This is simply  what it is at the moment, but that realization warns against premature unproductive discussions whereby one group questions the rationale behind certain actions of the other. This dynamic is even further confounded by a certain scale-problem. Managers often require detailed information on some local stressor and such local, applied, small scale issues often don't appeal to scientists. In other words, the fields do not overlap as much as some people seem to think which further increases the likelihood for misunderstanding, miscommunication and slow progress if it comes to reef protection.

At the same time, 80% of the information that is required to back-up effective reef protection does already exist and it is this bulk of information that should be focused on, i.e. the big picture with big problems such as nutrification, near shore development, overfishing, increased sedimentation, chemical pollution etc as the main drivers of coral reef decline that can be countered by local management actions. It is true that action in these matters is extremely complicated and one faces enormous opposition from parties that are normally not too conducive to science-based logic, polite discussions and rational reasoning (e.g. developers, politicians). Often for good reason, as other problems prevail and these problems are generally naively disregarded by most scientists. This makes for an interesting, but unproductive dynamic during which reefs simply rot away even further.

On the management side, one should also focus on the aforementioned big picture as this is the area where true progress can be made. It is easier to prevent people from putting on sun screen before they hop in the water than it is to come up with a locally acceptable solution to say overfishing. Nevertheless the benefits of the latter outweigh those of the former in an astronomic way. Cleaning up cigarette buds on a beach, getting old car tires of a reef, cutting the plastic circles that hold beer cans together, waving a sign next to a busy road, not using DEET before you jump between the fish....it all helps, but such actions alone won't save reefs (and I am sure all managers agree with this). It would be nice if the MP managers could gear up for the real battles that come with coral reef protection. Focus on the big issues and know that they are backed up by scientists that study these reefs. To achieve such productivity, I feel it would be highly unproductive if the science/management group started discussions amongst each on whether common-sense management actions can be scientifically supported yes or no. This luxury simply does not exist anymore. While we look at each other, others will keep doing "their thing" (probably get a good laugh out of the unproductive dynamic observed in the science/management group) and again reef decline simply progresses. 

The coral-list seems a useful platform to bridge the gap between science and management. People dealing with reef management often have unreliable internet access, let alone access to scientific studies or informative websites. It would be annoying to see that one of few options for productive collaboration turns into a battleground for... yeah, for what I wonder???

Best regards from Curacao


Dr. M.J.A. Vermeij
Science Director
Carmabi Foundation
Piscaderabaai z/n
Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles
Phone: +5999-5103067 (NEW NUMBER)
Email: m.vermeij at carmabi.org
Skype: markvermeij
Web: www.carmabi.org

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