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

Dennis Hubbard dennis.hubbard at oberlin.edu
Sun Dec 16 14:46:04 EST 2012

Thanks Sarah:

My questions weren't actually tied to any specific agenda or concern. As I
tried to lay out in my first posting on the issue, it was explained to me
and others at the original posting discussion that listing Acropora as a
threatened species was far more effective than listing it as "endangered" -
and would more likely lead to a better outcome for the two. I did not
challenge this view then, and I'm not challenging the opposite one now as
I'm not qualified to comment on the political and policy vagaries of such
decisions - and don't claim to be an expert on Acropora. I am all for
protecting these and other species. My question was simply a request for
information on why this position had apparently changed. I can think of
three likely scenarios. It could be based on a change in the condition of
the two corals and that would be of interest to me. ALternately,  the
people who explained the net advantages of "threatened" over "endangered"
were unfortunately wrong and this is an effort to correct an earlier
mistake. Or,  political or legal conditions may have changed in ways that
made "threatened" the right choice nearly a decade ago but now make
"endangered" the right one.

My intent is not to challenge either decision. My interest is simply to
have a better understanding of the process by which decisions are made to
propose such changes to the public. I am motivated by the fact that a) I'm
sure my students will ask this, and b) I'm too lazy to do all the work when
I have experts at my fingertips. So, I thought this was a good idea. I
apologize if my post implied any animosity; it was certainly not intended.
So, if it is possible to generally explain the changes in the landscape
regarding Caribbean Acropora, I'd love to have an idea of what triggered
the decision as it will provide what I think are valuable insights to how
policy makers make decisions. I look at this as quite different from the
legal background and bureaucratic workings of the Endangered Species Act.
I've read through the very helpful exerpts that have been posted and that
has been a valuable process. I'm more interested in the "backstory" at this

Thanks again,


On Sat, Dec 15, 2012 at 1:52 PM, Sarah Garvin <sarah.e.garvin at gmail.com>wrote:

> Greetings Coral-Listers!
> I read with interest the various viewpoints raised by the proposed listing
> of 66 species of corals, and I wonder if we would be having the same
> conversations and asking such difficult questions without the perceived
> "threat" of listing these species as endangered or threatened?
> Does the proposed listing raise such divergent (and impassioned) reactions
> because it challenges "business as usual"? Do we feel threatened as coral
> enthusiasts (whether aquarium curators, biologists, geologists, etc.)
> because it forces us to question the underlying assumptions that drive our
> work and opinions? Or are the ranges of opinions expressed driven by the
> fact that this is legally-mandated POLICY process, which must use the best
> science AVAILABLE in a polarized governmental environment? Perhaps its a
> combination of all of the above.
> I don't have firm answers to any of these questions. Regardless, I urge all
> of you to PARTICIPATE in the public process by *thoughtfully* evaluating
> the use of science in what is, unfortunately, an imperfect (yet
> legally-mandated) government process. There is no "out" once the U.S.
> Endangered Species Act (ESA) ball gets rolling. The best and most useful
> way to express your concerns about the proposal is through practical,
> thoughtful, and applicable commentary on the methods used to develop the
> proposed rule. These types of comments HAVE changed the outcome of a
> proposed rule in the final rulemaking. As a former federal employee that
> had the pleasure(?) of reading and cataloging EVERY. SINGLE. COMMENT that
> came in on a proposed species listing (and critical habitat) rule, I saw
> firsthand how those comments impacted a final rule.
> I grant you that the ESA is not perfect; however, it is a powerful law and
> I believe it forces us to confront some uncomfortable concepts. I wonder
> where we might be in the U.S. without the ESA and the questions it forces
> us to attempt to answer as citizens and as scientists. It definitely points
> out that no discipline operates in a vacuum and every discipline can
> default to tunnel vision. That, perhaps, is the most humbling fact of all
> -- no one person or school of thought has a perfect understanding of our
> surrounding environment and the changes we observe over time. Further, this
> fact is not an acceptable excuse for inaction. We simply must do the best
> we can within the confines of the situation by working together and
> acknowledging our inherent limitations.
> Happy Holidays to you all,
> Sarah Garvin
> On Sat, Dec 15, 2012 at 11:00 AM, <coral-list-request at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> >wrote:
> >
> > Message: 1
> > Date: Fri, 14 Dec 2012 12:02:21 -0500
> > From: Dennis Hubbard <dennis.hubbard at oberlin.edu>
> > Subject: Re: [Coral-List] Impact of listing 66 coral species on coral
> >         research
> > To: Steve Mussman <sealab at earthlink.net>
> > Cc: "coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov" <coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>,
> >         Eugene Shinn <eshinn at marine.usf.edu>
> > Message-ID:
> >         <
> > CAFjCZNbddmKnpYNFOBcNU+MyOcsceN4tWkC8weB8GPg6AZSAYg at mail.gmail.com>
> > Content-Type: text/plain; charset=windows-1252
> >
> > 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
> > dressing.
> >
> > 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.
> >
> > Dennis
> >
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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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