[Coral-List] Impact of listing 66 coral species on coral research

Dennis Hubbard dennis.hubbard at oberlin.edu
Fri Dec 14 12:02:21 EST 2012

TIME OUT!!! Everyone go find your sleeping mats. It's "quiet time".

I started this post over a week ago and put it away remembering an earlier
admonishment of long missives. Having now read enough verbiage to fill a
bad first draft of a master's thesis, I've pulled it back out.

Clearly, this is an important discussion and one we will not resolve here.
My short answer to the very eloquent parable of December 7th is that
clearly we saw Hitler as a bigger threat to our society than we saw our
society as a threat to our own life-support system... and that is sad
indeed.The good news may be that we're doomed.

In *Home Economics*, Wendell Berry wrote, " We have never known what we
were doing, because we have never known what we were UNdoing. We cannot
know what we are doing until we know what nature would be doing if we were
doing nothing." This is, in effect, Geology's seat at the grown-ups table
when it comes to discussions of climate change, environmental "decline",
etc. The geologic record gives us a temporal and spatial perspective that I
find missing in much of the literature.... and the design of many
ecological experiments.

Having said that, we (geologists) have our blind spots as well. Too often
we fail to recognize that, while the record we see is both temporally and
spatially grand, the laws that dictated how it unfolded operated largely on
a day-to-day basis that we simply can't tease from the record. So, we have
to do the best we can by trying to think beyond what we can measure in a
core or an outcrop. I've fallen into that trap too many times to not look
for it.

We geologists may not be the brightest bulbs in the pack, but I really
doubt that Gene's been going back to the Keys year after year looking for
Elvis to return from the dead. I believe the term "local extinction" has
not been struck from the scientific lexicon. Gene's probably spent more
time "looking" at reefs than most of us combined, so I've learned to think
very carefully when he brings up a point that really pisses me off. He's
usually either right or has at least reminded me that there is something I
need to think more carefully about.  If one looks objectively at the
arguments that go on in the popular literature (and I consider Science and
Nature to be among these) the curmudgeons are most often people who have
lived and worked at Marine Labs. I suggest you go back and look at some of
the back-and-forth discussion as the reefs off Disco Bay were coming apart
to see passionate but well-framed and civil disagreements.

Those of us who have been fortunate to spend any significant time living
near the reefs on which we work are mindful of the tremendous spatial and
temporal variability that occurs on individual reefs. I spent over a decade
bringing students and colleagues back to the same place only to see how
much "shake-and-bake" there was  (I think that's the proper term in the
stasis literature). Also, I have seen places that I visited on an almost
daily basis (and published on) varyingly described in the literature as
"rich" or "poor", "stable" or "declining"..... and often based on the same
data (sometimes mine) viewed through the lens of individual bias - this is
the stuff of dogma. Many of our arguments depend on which perception we
choose to accept. Yes, reefs are "changing", and I would argue they
are  "unhealthy".
However, I am always mindful that the latter is largely a personal
position, which includes biases from having spent so much time so close to
the patient.

Too often we go to places at great expense and temporal investment (and,
let's not forget the blazing trails of carbon we've left as we visit our
favorite sites far afield). As a result, we spend so much time "working"
that we don't spend enough time "looking". I remember a very gifted
colleague years back explaining that their field site, which was the
"model" for the northern third of the GBR, was chosen based on "where the
captain would anchor". These are the realities of research, but we still
don't want to forget that our careful measurements can still benefit from
taking the time to just burn a little air looking around.... or a little
valuable journal space just musing. Yeah, it's not random and can't be
entered into a non- metric scaling analysis, but.......

I often think back to Bill Gladfelter's warnings about WBD that went
largely unnoticed.... and it was damned frightening as you watched it
unfold. But, for some reason, it didn't get any traction until it hit the
Keys..... go figure. Then it was a big deal. Any bias there?

A few years back, Hal Wanless kindly shared some of his photos of
magnificent *A. palmata *communities in the Turks and Caicos (acres of
them.... it was Buck Island reincarnate). Then they got hammered a few
years back by multiple hurricanes and cover was decimated. I crossed paths
with Hal again this past summer and he showed me photos of the recovery....
and it is incredible. What's up?? I have seen photos of acre-after-acre of *A.
palmata* along the south coast of Cuba. Same question.

I mention this not to argue against listing of the species (that's above my
pay grade), but to point out that this phenomenon is incredibly variable
and we have opportunities to perhaps understand what factors combine to
make *A. palmata* so "happy" at these and similar sites. Maybe it's a
larval dispersal peculiarity. Maybe it's because Cuban fishermen using too
small a mesh size in their traps just disappear. I doubt it's a matter of
warming passing these places by. If I were inclined to bring out the
"over-the-hill" gang and take some more shelf-edge cores, I'd probably go
to one of these sites to see if *A. palmata* along the deeper shelf edge
survived through the two millennial-scale gaps in the species 6,000 and
3,000 years ago throughout the Caribbean (nobody's given me any samples
from those intervals in nearly a decade since I first mentioned this). I
can only imaging how easy it would be to get a permit to core through one
of the few remaining A. palmata communities in the region.

So, while I do not share Gene's healthy skepticism about our ties to this
problem and the potential value of listing species, I do share his sense
that we too often use environmental strategies to convince ourselves that
we understand an issue or are "doing something to deal with it". With the
best of intentions, we toss terms like "decline" and "health" around with
abandon. Unfortunately the number of perceptions of what these mean is
probably close to the number of people participating in the discussion. For
years, I have read both civil and uncivil discussions of the relative
importance of "top down" vs "bottom up" vs "side in" impacts (we're running
out of directions folks). .... and the animus has risen to the point where
the people who probably know the most about these things no longer talk to
one another.

The following wise words of the recently passed savant, George Carlin seem
appropriate here: "We’ve only been engaged in heavy industry for a little
over two hundred years. Two hundred years versus four and a half billion.
And we have the CONCEIT to think that somehow we’re a threat?..... Save the
planet, we don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet. We haven’t
learned how to care for one another, we’re gonna save the %#*&ing planet?
Besides, there is nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine. The
PEOPLE are f%#*&ed.

So, I end my post with three questions in the hope that they will spawn
careful introspection and a measured response. First, "What is "healthy"
and what would we return reefs to if we were the Secretary of Coral Reefs?"
Does anyone really believe that if we don't remove the stresses that are
responsible, keeping species behind a fence will do any good? Yes, I
understand that the listing process has recovery plans and a number of
other tools to implement solutions. These are well intentioned, but until
we understand the habitat-level relationships, they are just window

Second, "what could we have done, or might we do, other than the obvious
things we've "fiddled with" over the years as CO2 levels have steadily
risen?". Politics matter - and until we get better at engaging the public,
we shouldn't expect much success. We get our butts kicked in debates over
climate change and evolution for a reason.

Finally - my original question of a few weeks back. Could someone who is
more familiar with the subtleties of the listing process briefly lay out
what they see as the pros and cons of listing in general, and specifically
"threatened" versus "endangered". I didn't ask this to set off another
hostile thread. I really don't know the answer.

So, whether you can embrace with any of the points I've made here, I hope
you can agree that a bunch of obviously well educated and gifted scientists
lifting their legs and marking trees in the back yard probably won't get us
where we want to be at the end of this discussion.

Sorry, but diplomacy isn't my strong suit.


On Tue, Dec 11, 2012 at 10:07 AM, Steve Mussman <sealab at earthlink.net>wrote:

>    Dear Gene,
>    I  suppose  you  will  never understand/learn why coral scientists and
>    environmentalists are so worried about the impacts of anthropogenic
> climate
>    change..  Although the geological record is essential for understanding
> how
>    species respond to natural climate change, there are a number of
> reasons why
>    future effects on biodiversity will likely be different and particularly
>    severe. Human-induced warming is already rapid and is expected to
> accelerate
>    further. Changes, not in models, but in the real world of glaciers, heat
>    records, species distribution and behavior, are already evident.  It is
>    quite possible that in a geological instant, planetary conditions will
> be
>    transformed to a state unlike anything that the worldâs modern species
> have
>    ever encountered. Most ecosystems have already degraded and lost
> resilience
>    from past human activities. In this context, synergies from temperature
>    increases, ocean acidification, chemical pollution and other factors
> could
>    lead to cascading extinctions for the changes are occurring too rapidly
> for
>    adaptations like those found in the geological record to reoccur.
>           And this time around, we believe we could have done something
> about
>    it.
>    Regards,
>    Steve
>    -----Original Message-----
>    >From: Eugene Shinn
>    >Sent: Dec 10, 2012 3:31 PM
>    >To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
>    >Subject: [Coral-List] Impact of listing 66 coral species on coral
> research
>    >
>    >Dear Listers, I suppose coral biologists and environmentalists will
>    >never understand/learn what the geology of coral reefs is telling us.
>    >As pointed out many, many times, about 98 percent of the Florida Keys
>    >reefs are no less than a meter thick yet they have been underwater at
>    >least 6,000 years. Acropora has come and gone several times during
>    >that period long before all the current hysteria about
>    >Co2/warming/alkalinity shift began. Seems likely that if history were
>    >not repeating itself our reefs would be many meters thicker and
>    >contain a continuous record of all the species we worry about. Gene
>    >--
>    >
>    >
>    >No Rocks, No Water, No Ecosystem (EAS)
>    >------------------------------------
> -----------------------------------
>    >E. A. Shinn, Courtesy Professor
>    >University of South Florida
>    >College of Marine Science Room 221A
>    >140 Seventh Avenue South
>    >St. Petersburg, FL 33701
>    >
>    >Tel 727 553-1158----------------------------------
>    >-----------------------------------
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Dennis Hubbard
Dept of Geology-Oberlin College Oberlin OH 44074
(440) 775-8346

* "When you get on the wrong train.... every stop is the wrong stop"*
 Benjamin Stein: "*Ludes, A Ballad of the Drug and the Dream*"

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