[Coral-List] Black reefs

John Cubit cubitjd at gmail.com
Tue Sep 13 20:57:08 EDT 2011

I sympathize with Alina Szmant's remarks and doubts about the role of iron
in producing "black reefs."  I, too, have seen fringing reefs loaded with
old iron debris (with no phosphate rock) that had no associated signs of
cyanophyta blooms.  Then I worked on the initial response to the Jin Shiang
Fa vessel grounding in 1993 on Rose Atoll (part of American Samoa).  The 135
foot ship grounded on the seaward edge of the atoll, broke up, and spilled
about 110,000 gallons of diesel fuel stored in its fish holds and fuel tanks
( http://www.incidentnews.gov/incident/6966 ).  The diesel fuel was churned
into the surf and formed an opalescent emulsion that we could see in low
altitude overflights.  The surf drove the water-diesel mixture over the reef
crest, across the reef flat, and into the lagoon.  On-foot, quantitative
surveys documented the pattern of dis-occupation of urchin burrows around
the wreck site.  The rate of occupancy increased with distance from the
wreck location.  Subsequent attempts to remove the scattered pieces of steel
hull, engines, etc., took years, resulting in long-term exposure of the reef
habitat to the iron-containing debris.  A massive bloom of cyanophytes
followed the wreck incident and was marked by a broad, black swath across
the atoll, easily visible in high altitude overflights. At first, I
questioned the iron fertilization hypothesis, which was proposed by Jeff M.
Burgett from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  He was assessing the impact of
the Jin Shiang Fa incident.  Instead, I favored a hypothesis that the toxic
emulsified diesel fuel caused massive mortality of the entire range of
herbivores (from micro invertebrates to macro invertebrates to fish), as
well as killing the original space occupiers.  In this hypothesis, the
kill-off of herbivores and substrate-occupiers, combined with fertilization
provided by the decomposing dead organisms (both endo- and epi-lithic),
allowed and supported the black cyanophyte bloom, which then became the
principal occupier of substrate.  I think this is still a partially viable
hypothesis, but additional observations by Jeff Burgett also support the
iron hypothesis.  For example, he and his colleagues observed similar
cyanophyte blooms developing locally around iron stakes they had placed
outside the swath of the diesel fuel.  Add to this support the observations
of similar blooms in other low-island, oceanic reef habitats that have
occurred around buoy anchors and other sources of iron without associated
petroleum spills. (T.M. Work, et al., have also reported phase-shifts to
high abundances of corallimorphs in such circumstances.)  Independently,
planktonic algal blooms have been experimentally created in the open ocean
by iron fertilization.

A series of simple, affordable, well-controlled field experiments using the
purest forms of Fe could easily test the primary hypotheses and explain the
causality producing these "black-reef" blooms.  As part of this process, we
should also develop and examine additional alternative hypotheses.  For
example, does the steel contain other materials besides iron that causes the
blooms?  The results of such investigations would enhance the effectiveness
of rational coral reef management, including the reef restoration efforts
that USFWS and NOAA are charged with conducting for harmed reef habitats in
U.S. waters.  The results could also increase our knowledge of fundamental
reef ecology, especially if the experiments are able explain why the
observed iron-associated blooms appear to occur on low-island reefs, but not
on high-island and mainland fringing reefs.   As Amanda Meyer suggests, the
dialogue should continue--and also be resolved with simple basic application
of the Scientific Method.

John Cubit
John.Cubit at gmail.com

On Tue, Sep 13, 2011 at 12:13 PM, <Amanda_Meyer at fws.gov> wrote:

> As the Refuge Manager of the Kingman Reef National Wildlife Refuge (NWR),
> I am thrilled to see the dialogue and attention given to this subject. The
> Fish and Wildlife Service has been trying to secure funds for ship wreck
> removal at both Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef NWRs for several years now,
> and I am glad that the subject of ship wrecks and their impacts on remote
> reefs and atolls has come to light.
> Dr. Birkeland has mentioned in a previous post, and Dr. Rohwer has pointed
> out in his ISRS paper, that these remote atolls and reefs have a very
> different chemistry and are unlike continental or volcanic reefs.  This is
> a point to remember when dealing with ship wrecks in remote areas that
> experience high levels of water exchange with the open ocean and low
> levels of nutrients.  As a scientists I appreciate the hard work of Dr.
> Rohwers teams, and as a manager I rely on good science to make critical
> management decisions.
> I hope this dialogue continues to highlight the need to remove these
> wrecks from our remote refuges and spectacular reefs while they are still
> somewhat intact, and resilient.
> ----------------------------------------------
> Amanda L Meyer
> Wildlife Refuge Manager
> Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef NWR
> U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
> (808)792-9551 office
> (808)927-2511 cell
> -------- Original Message --------
> Subject:                 [Coral-List] concurring with Forest
> Date:            Mon, 12 Sep 2011 21:17:46 -1000
> From:            Charles Birkeland <charlesb at hawaii.edu>
> To:              coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> For decades, ecologists have been evaluating the hypothesis that diversity
> supports stability. This is still being debated, but it is most often
> accepted. When considered at the higher levels of taxa (phyla and
> classes), coral reefs are possibly the most diverse of ecosystems. And yet
> as diverse as they are, when coral reef communities experience the
> deposition of scrap metal in areas relatively far from human settlements
> and exposed to massive water exchange with the open ocean (e.g., Kingman
> Reef, Rose Atoll), they can purportedly collapse into a system of black
> slime of prokaryotes. On the other hand, while in harbors or lagoons with
> a number of shipwrecks and with longer residency time of enclosed water
> (e.g., Pago Pago, American Samoa; Apra Harbor, Guam; Chuuk Lagoon and Beqa
> Lagoon), the surrounding coral communities persist or even benefit from
> the three-dimensional metal structures. As Forest mentioned, and I
> concurred in my previous missive, iron-limitation or other matters of
> context might be key factors determining differences among the reef
> systems’ responses to scrap metal. As suggested by Forest, coral reefs on
> basaltic islands might be less vulnerable to scrap metal than are those on
> atolls. But whether the difference is solely a result of relative
> availability of iron, or whether it is a combination of factors far away
> from human populations, it does call attention to the fact that the
> diverse coral reef systems are not resistant or stable and can be
> drastically affected by the availability or surplus of a few key
> nutrients. This whole matter is reviewed nicely in the ISRS Briefing Paper
> 3.  How can such a diverse system be so unstable with the input of any of
> these nutrients?
> The prokaryotes are possibly directly affected by the iron, and the
> eukaryotic biota, no matter how diverse, are overwhelmed by the
> prokaryotes out of control. Paleontologist Peter Ward explained in his
> Medea hypothesis how, in the geological past, prokaryotes occasionally had
> global population growth out of control, altered the atmosphere and ocean
> chemistry, and caused mass extinctions of the more complex eukaryotes. He
> then listed a number of characteristics of the behavior of human
> populations that make humans the only species of eukaryote that behaves
> like prokaryotes. It is tempting to develop analogies between the
> prokaryotes with iron (or combination of substances and conditions) from
> scrap metal overwhelming the diverse coral reef community and humans with
> fossil fuels overwhelming the diverse biosphere, but I will refrain.
> Chuck
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: "Szmant, Alina" [szmanta at uncw.edu]
> Sent: 09/04/2011 07:36 PM AST
> To: andrew ross <andyroo_of72 at yahoo.com>; Todd Barber
> <reefball at reefball.com>; "coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov"
> <coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>
> Subject: Re: [Coral-List] Black reefs
> I'd like to in part disagree with the observations being posted.  From my
> observations, it depends on the type of iron matrix:  For example, in the
> Florida Keys there are a large number of channel markers that are iron I
> beams, and they have lots of corals growing on them, as do oil rigs that I
> am fairly sure have iron in their metal.  Also, I have seen wrecks of
> steel-hulled ships (e.g.  the Arimora in the Bahamas, one in Dry Tortugas,
> name escapes me) that are overgrown by large corals.   On the other hand,
> I have seen ship wrecks surrounded by blue-green algae (one near Spanish
> Wells has phosphate rock pouring out of cracks in the hull), with few
> corals alive anywhere nearby within 50 or more yards.  Basically my
> message is that one shouldn't generalize to iron per se being bad for
> corals.  Volcanic rocks rich in iron are wonderful coral settlement sites!
> *************************************************************************
> Dr. Alina M. Szmant
> Professor of Marine Biology
> Center for Marine Science and Dept of Biology and Marine Biology
> University of North Carolina Wilmington
> 5600 Marvin Moss Ln
> Wilmington NC 28409 USA
> tel:  910-962-2362  fax: 910-962-2410  cell: 910-200-3913
> http://people.uncw.edu/szmanta
> *******************************************************
> -----Original Message-----
> From: coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> [mailto:coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov] On Behalf Of andrew ross
> Sent: Saturday, September 03, 2011 10:42 AM
> To: Todd Barber; coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> Subject: Re: [Coral-List] Black reefs
> Todd & List,
> Interesting timing. We set some propagated Acropora to EcoReefs in Montego
> Bay, Jamaica, last month using steel wire that I suppose was a little too
> well "cured" (we age galvanized binding wire to eliminate problems with
> toxicity) and had rusted. Everything planted on the first day is fine, but
> maybe <10% of the fragments set on the second day came up with some sort
> of banding syndrome starting at the wire. I've never had this before at
> all. It seems the disease is either facilitated by the rusting iron or the
> disease is in the sand of the site and the wire picked it up when it was
> on the bottom, or both. Either way, we file it under "lessons learned" and
> won't use rusted nails or wire again. Rust does occur after the corals are
> set, particularly at the point of wire-tissue contact, but this has never
> been a problem. It might be interesting to ask Bowden-Kerby, Lirman and
> Hernandez if their nursery steel was new or rusty and if it made a
> difference. They  are epoxy coating them these days, so far as I know. A
> ________________________________
> From: Todd Barber <reefball at reefball.com>
> To: Forest Rohwer <frohwer at gmail.com>
> Cc: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> Sent: Saturday, September 3, 2011 7:51 AM
> Subject: Re: [Coral-List] Black reefs
> At the Reef Ball Foundation, we've been talking about the negative effect
> of
> iron on corals for years.  (One reason we don't allow iron in any of our
> designed reef modules).
> If anyone thinks it's not real...go to anybody that keeps a high end
> marine
> "live" tank and throw in some rebar and wait a while you will see it all
> turning black, algaes taking over, and a dramatic increase in aerobic
> activity....which causes the sulfur odor from hydrogen sulphide.
> We maintain the only responsible habitat enhancement for reefs use
> materials
> that do not have direct chemical biological impacts either toxic OR a
> nutrient (as in the case of the mineral Iron).
> Thanks,
> Todd R Barber
> Chairman, Reef Ball Foundation
> 3305 Edwards Court
> (609 PORTIA N ST, NOKOMIS, FL 34275 AFTER Aug. 5th)
> Greenville, NC 27858
> 252-353-9094 (Direct/Office)
> 941-484-7482 (Home AFTER August 5th)
> 941-720-7549 (Cell & Goggle Voice)
> toddbarber Skype
> www,reefball.org (Reef Ball Foundation)
> www.artificialreefs.org (Designed Artificial Reefs)
> www.reefbeach.com (Reefs for Beach Erosion)
> www.eternalreefs.com (Memorial Reefs)
> www.reefball.com (Reef Ball Foundation)
> On Thu, Sep 1, 2011 at 8:10 PM, Forest Rohwer <frohwer at gmail.com> wrote:
> > Black reefs are associated with shipwrecks or other debris in this
> > region of the world. These sites are interesting both from a
> > conservation and scientific point of view. As a conservation issue,
> > they are amazingly destructive. Kingman, one of the jewels of the USA
> > coral reefs, has lost >1 km of the lagoon in less than 3 years. An old
> > wreck on Fanning atoll has killed about 10% of their reef.
> >
> > Visually, the black reefs are some of the eeriest places I've ever
> > seen. The bottom is completely covered in different algae (including
> > cyanobacterial mats), the water is filled with marine snow, and dark
> > precipitate on the benthos (probably sulfur). We just published a
> > paper in ISME where we have recreate the precipitate, cloudiness, and
> > coral death in microcosms by combining rubble from the black reefs,
> > with corals and an iron addition. Addition of antibiotics blocks the
> > coral death, precipitate, and marine snow, suggesting a microbial
> > role.
> >
> > The black reefs are probably caused by iron-enrichment from the wrecks
> > and debris. We think black reefs are specific to non-emergent coral
> > reefs, where iron is a limiting nutrient. Our current model is that
> > iron stimulation of algae leads to increased microbial activity and
> > coral death. In support of this, metagenomic analysis of the microbial
> > community showed an enrichment of iron-related pathogenicity factors.
> >
> > If you are interested in the science, the please see the ISME journal
> > (
> http://www.nature.com/ismej/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ismej2011114a.html
> > ).
> >
> > If you are interested in conservation, then please help us petition
> > the congress to support removal of the wrecks and debris. Please
> > contact Emily Douce <Emily.Douce at marine-conservation.org> at the
> > Marine Conservation Biology Institute.
> >
> > To see how messed up these sites are, please look at the National
> > Geographic write up
> > (
> >
> http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/09/01/black-reefs-when-the-ship-hits-the-reef/
> > ).
> >
> > Sorry for the long post,
> > Forest Rohwer
> > frohwer at gmail.com
> > _______________________________________________
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