[Coral-List] Are coral reefs really doomed?

Douglas Fenner douglasfennertassi at gmail.com
Mon Jul 16 23:39:33 EDT 2012

Thanks for alerting us, John.

     Ray Bradbury, as Tom Goreau pointed out in a message on “coralreef
freeforall”, missed the boat from the start in saying that “Overfishing,
acidification, and pollution are pushing coral reefs into oblivion.”  He
missed the largest single threat, global-warming produced mass coral
bleaching.  There is also no mention of coral disease, probably the single
largest contributor to the decline in coral reefs in the Caribbean (which
we need to remember is an important but quite small part of the world’s
coral reefs).  By “pollution” I presume he means sedimentation,
nutrification, and chemical pollution.  There are a host of other damaging
factors, but these are the main ones.

      In Bradbury’s defense, a close reading shows that he initially says
that reefs are “on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation”,
which is different from saying they certainly will.  I’d argue that if a
human generation is 33 years, it might well take two generations.  He also
shows he’s aware that not every scrap of reef will be dead at that time.

      He then says that the “fact” than any one of the three factors he
says is causing reef demise could cause their death by itself (a point I
would not concede is based on science that is “compelling and unequivocal”)
logically leads to the conclusion that “there is no hope of saving the
global coral reef ecosystem.”  NO hope??  Give me a break.  The continued
decline of coral reefs depends on humans continuing to damage reefs the way
they have been.  That is NOT an inevitable consequence of what we have done
in the past.  Humans are capable of learning and changing what they do.

       Bradbury says that “scientists don’t see the reefs for the corals.”  I
beg to differ.  In fact, we all know how severe the problem is, precisely
because there are more and more scientists who not only grasp how important
it is to find out the truth about how the world’s reefs are doing and what
the future holds for reefs, but also have figured out new ways to assess
reefs over huge areas of the world ocean.  I refer in particular to papers
like the Gardner et al (2003) paper demonstrating the severity of the
decline in the Caribbean, the Bruno & Selig (2007) paper on the decline of
reefs in the Pacific, Wilkinson’s GCRMN books on the state of the reefs of
the world, the Wilkinson et al. (1999) paper reporting the loss of most of
the coral in the Indian Ocean in the 1998 bleaching event, the paper by
Paddack et al. (2009) on the decline of reef fish in the Caribbean, and the
Alvarez-Philip et al. (2009) paper showing the decline of coral reef
rugosity in the Caribbean, plus many others.  My recent paper on challenges
for managing coral reef fisheries (Fenner, 2012) listed 39 references of
papers documenting the decline of coral reefs around the world, and there
are surely more.  Meta-analyses of reef data from entire ocean basins are a
cottage industry at the moment, and the results are the main source of
evidence of the decline Bradbury decries.  Scientists are anything but
sticking their heads in the sand.

      I agree with John Bruno that there is no hard evidence that local
threats like overfishing and pollution are accelerating.  Increasing
certainly, but the rate of increase has not been shown to be accelerating.  I
would have to say, though, that greenhouse gas emissions and their effects
are accelerating.  The rate of greenhouse gas emissions continue to
increase, so emissions are accelerating.  The rate of sea level rise will
surely accelerate as the world warms, with most of the rise that will
happen this century occurring in the latter part of the century, and the
rate of rise will likely increase well into the next century unless we get
emissions under control.  Acidification will increase proportionally to the
rate of CO2 release, which is indeed accelerating.

      Bradbury says that “There will be remnants here and there” left.  I
would like to point that not all of the world’s reefs are on steep declines.
In American Samoa, we have about 30% coral cover, and the trend over the
last 7 years is slightly upward.  Wilkinson (2006) presented a graph that
showed that Australia, the Coral Triangle, and Pacific Islands were the
areas of the world’s reefs that were in the best condition at that time
(based on the huge Reef Check data set).  In the Wilkinson Status of Coral
Reefs of the World: 2008 report, his graph on page 134 shows coral cover in
Indonesia as steady.  In a plenary talk a few days ago at ICRS in Cairns,
Australia, Jamalludin Jompa showed graphs of coral cover over time at
several sites in Indonesia, with good coral cover and different sites going
up or down, but no overall change (you can view this presentation and that
of the other plenary presentations I refer to below at
http://www.coralcoe.org.au/icrs2012/Default.htm).  That is a small sample
of Indonesia’s reefs, but if that is indicative of reefs there, that is
huge; Indonesia is not a small and unimportant place, it rivals Australia
for the country in the world with the most coral reefs.  I claim that not
all is lost, not by a long shot.

      As some other commenters have said, the fate of the world’s coral
reefs are in our hands.  More accurately, in the hands of the world’s
people and their governments.  It is quite true that currently people are
abusing reefs badly in many ways, over most of the world.  It is also true
that scientists and managers are working flat out to reduce damage done by
humans, and like the review of NOAA’s coral reef programs concluded ‘many
wonderful things are being done, but the reefs are still going down the
tubes.’  Maybe nothing will change over the coming decades, and indeed most
all of the world’s reefs will be degraded beyond recognition, such that
coral reefs as we know them will largely cease to exist.  That is quite
possible, maybe even probable, especially if people don’t change their ways.
We are indeed staring into the abyss, I think agreement on that is very

      But another presentation at ICRS, by Peter Kareiva (chief scientist
and vice president of the Nature Conservancy) pointed out that many
measures of environmental decline have peaked in developed countries and
have declined, some greatly.  So, for instance, air and water quality have
improved in Europe, the US, and Japan.  He showed a picture of when
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, was blackened by soot from smoke produced by
steel mills and the rivers were so polluted that people didn’t want to live
near them.  Now the skies are clear, the soot has been cleaned off the
buildings, the city sparkles, and the rivers have fish that can be caught
and are safe to eat, and the city is rated one of the most liveable in the
U.S.  Some of us remember when a river in Ohio was so polluted it caught
fire!  No longer.  At one time the smog in London from heating homes by
burning coal was so bad people were dying from coal soot.  No longer.  At
one time the air of Tokyo was so bad there were vending machines dispensing
oxygen for those who had breathing problems.  No longer, the skies are
clear now.  Yes, China is building a new coal power plant every week and a
huge cloud of air pollution blows from China over Japan and out over the
Pacific.  But they know they have a problem and are already the world’s
leader in manufacturing renewable energy equipment.  They will clean up
their energy production as soon as they can afford it.  Human per capita
consumption in developed countries has already peaked and started to
decline, world population growth is slowing as family sizes come down in
many countries and world population growth may well peak in coming decades
and begin to slowly decline.  A variety of other unsustainable practices
also are probably heading towards their peaks and future declines.  Human
population and consumption/development are widely acknowledged to be the
ultimate drivers of damage to the environment (e.g., Sodhi & Ehrlich, 2010)
including to coral reefs (e.g. Brainard, et al. 2011; Fenner, 2012; and
many others).  It is quite true that the world community has not committed
to a serious program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and if it doesn’t
we can kiss coral reefs as we know them goodby.  But Australia has now
passed legislation committing itself to drastic reductions in greenhouse
gas emissions, and the cost for them and the world to do this is vastly
less than the public thinks, only about 1.2% of the economy.  We spend more
on that for junk we throw away.

     In another plenary presentation at ICRS, Madeleine van Oppen presented
work on the question of whether corals can acclimate and/or adapt fast
enough to buy us some time to work on controlling greenhouse gases.  There
is no question that corals can acclimate and adapt some, but the jury is
still out on how fast they can do it, and how much they can adjust to.  As
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg pointed out in his plenary talk, there is every reason
to be doubtful that they can adjust to 5-7o C temperature increase that we
are in for in the next couple hundred years if we don't do something.  There
are limits to what every species can adapt to.  But that much temperature
increase is far enough off that if we get to work reducing greenhouse gases
soon, we can limit temperature increases to amounts that some or most
corals probably can adapt to.  There is no question that much more reef
degradation is going to happen before we get all the threats under control,
but if we do get them under control, we can avoid complete reef degradation..

    Don't tell me that there is NO hope, and we should just let the reefs
and world go down the tube.  I don’t believe it, and I think the evidence
doesn’t support it.  Humans have a long history of muddling through,
waiting until a problem is huge and obvious, but then putting their
shoulders to the grindstone and doing what is necessary.  That is the
history with air pollution, acid rain and the ozone hole.  I submit that
the question is not whether humanity will fix these problems, but whether
they will do it in time to avoid the worst damages in decades to come.  I
think we need to be very realistic about the challenges, they are very
great indeed, but it can be done, we know how to do it, we just have to
have the world’s populations and governments decide that it is worth the
effort and cost, and get going to do it.

      Coral reefs provide people with hundreds of billions of dollars of
ecosystem services around the world every year.  Bradbury says we should
stop wasting money on trying to save reefs and instead put the money into
figuring out what ecosystems will replace reefs, and how to nudge them to
produce the food and other ecosystem services people depend on.  That’s a
recipe for disaster in my opinion.  I agree with Bradbury that if we don't
act, living coral reefs will be replaced by degraded reefs made of rubble
or dead reef matrix covered with filamentous algae and macroalgae, with
lots of microbes and jellyfish.  That can’t be nudged into producing large
amounts of reef fish without putting out vast “artificial reefs.”  But
reefs are far too vast for that to be practical.  Further, as reef growth
slows with coral death and acidification and sea level continues to rise,
reefs will provide less and less shoreline protection, and many tropical
shorelines will erode away, taking with them houses, villages and towns,
farmland and entire atoll nations.  Some shorelines can be hardened at
great expense, but many countries have way too much shoreline and way too
little money to do that, like the Philippines with 3000 islands and
Indonesia with 13-15,000 islands.  Hardening will probably not work on
atolls where the only land is low lying and made of sand, so thousands of
atolls around the world will go under.  If Bradbury wants to face hard
facts, the hard fact is that we have NO alternative that will preserve the
ecosystem services of coral reefs.  We must save them, or lose hundreds of
billions of dollars per year in benefits around the world, much of it in
countries that can least afford to lose it.

      I submit that we have NO choice but to save the coral reefs, and in
fact humanity can do it, if it decides to.

Cheers,  Douglas Fenner

Alvarez-Filip, L.; Dulvy, N.K.; Gill, J.A.; Côté, I.M.; Watkinson, A.R.
Flattening of Caribbean coral reefs: Region-wide declines in architectural
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Brainard, R.E., Birkeland, C., Eakin, C.M., McElhaney, P., Miller, M.W.,
Patterson, M., Piniak, G.A. 2011.  Status review report of 82 candidate
coral species petitioned under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  NOAA
Technical Memorandum NMFS-PIFSC-27.  530 pp.   Open access, download at:

Bruno, J.F.; Selig, E.R. Regional decline of coral cover in the
Indo-Pacific: Timing, extent, and subregional comparisons. *PLoS One **2007*,
*2*, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000711.

Fenner, D. 2012.  Challenges for managing fisheries on diverse coral reefs.
Diversity  4(1): 105-160.  Available online open-access at

Gardner, T.A.; Côté, I.M.; Gill, J.A.; Grant, A.; Watkinson, A.R. Long-term
region-wide declines in Caribbean corals. *Science **2003*, *301*, 958–960.

Paddack, M.J.; Reynolds, J.D.; Aguilar, C.; Appeldoorn, R.S.; Beets, J.;
Burkett, E.W.; Chittaro, P.M.; Clarke, K.; Esteves, R.; Fonesca, A.C.; *et
al. *Recent region-wide declines in Caribbean reef fish abundance. *Curr.
Biol. **2009*, *19*, 590–596.

Sodhi, N.S., Ehrlich, P.R.  2010.  Conservation Biology for All.  Oxford
Univ. Press.  344 pp.  This BOOK is available online open access at:


Wilkinson, C, Linden O, Cesar H, Hodgson G, Rubens J, Strong, AE (1999)
Ecological and socioeconomic impacts of 1998 coral mortality in the Indian
Ocean: an ENSO impact and a warning of future change? Ambio 28:188-196

Wilkinson, C. Status of coral reefs of the world: Summary of threats and
remedial action.  In *Coral Reef Conservation*, Côté, I.M., Reynolds, J..D.,
Eds.; Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 2006; pp. 3–39.

On Mon, Jul 16, 2012 at 1:46 AM, Bruno, John <jbruno at unc.edu> wrote:

> See the good and growing discussion that Andy Revkin has facilitated in
> response to Roger Bradbury's NYT "A world without coral reefs" op-ed here:
> http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/14/reefs-in-the-anthropocene-zombie-ecology/
> Cheers, JB
> _______________________________________________
> Coral-List mailing list
> Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list

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