[Coral-List] GBR decline is simply a symptom of something much bigger

Peter Sale sale at uwindsor.ca
Thu Oct 11 12:49:40 EDT 2012

The recent news (De'ath et al PNAS) concerning the deterioration of the 
GBR over the past 27 years is justifiable cause for concern.  Its 
understandable that much of the discussion concerning it revolves around 
the details of what has been happening on the GBR, and certainly its not 
surprising that most discussion within Australia appears to focus on this 
issue -- after all, the GBR is a major coral reef province, under superior 
management compared to reef provinces in most other parts of the world, 
economically important to Australia and an iconic part of Australia's 

What disturbs me is that the press coverage from the rest of the world is 
treating this report as just another bad-news story about coral reefs, and 
in many cases, a bad-news story about one coral reef.  It is flash in the 
pan, gee whiz news, gone and forgotten in an instant.  The international 
media have been badly missing the point.  For some years now, the 
scientific community has been reporting on the growing impacts of humanity 
on the natural world, and the resulting degradation.  We identified coral 
reefs early on as a particularly vulnerable ecosystem, and have reported 
frequently on how reefs are deteriorating.  Collectively, we have a 
reasonably good understanding of the specific stressors and the specific 
causal pathways that link our activities to reef degradation.  Other 
environmental scientists have been doing an equally good job of reporting 
on changes in rainforests, the Arctic, and other types of places, but 
reefs have unfortunately been leading, or at least very close to the front 
of the pack, on the way down.

The most important message in the PNAS article should be that a large, 
very well managed, relatively under-used coral reef system has still shown 
a substantial, clearly unsustainable, loss in coral cover over such a 
short period.  Our best efforts at managing our impacts on coral reefs 
over the past 27 years have been insufficient, and it is difficult to see 
how we are going to radically improve our management efforts in time to 
reverse the trend.

Taking this message, adding in the message from the Arctic of warming 
proceeding faster than even the most pessimistic climate models have 
predicted, the message of extreme weather events globally over the past 
couple of years, the numerous issues of chronic pollution and habitat 
loss, and the evident, and growing issues of food and water security for 
people in many regions of the world, the international media should be 
focused on the fact that the predictions of the science community have 
been substantially correct -- we are causing serious and unsustainable 
damage to the biosphere on which we depend.  This is an existential 
problem for humanity, and still we muddle along with modest plans for 
environmental management and remediation.  When will people come to 
realize that the urgency that many in the science community articulate is 
absolutely real.  We need to act, and we need to act now, but still there 
are few if any signs that humanity is moving away from business as usual.
Peter F. Sale
Assistant Director
United Nations University
Institute for Water, Environment and Health


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