[Coral-List] musings of a misguided geologist

Dennis Hubbard dennis.hubbard at oberlin.edu
Fri Feb 7 14:29:00 EST 2014

I am tired of administrative duties as chair, so I thought I'd turn my
attentions to issues that are more intellectually stimulating (i.e., not
totally brain-numbing). I was just forwarded an interesting document
titled, "An Analysis of Issues Affecting the Management of Coral Refs and
the Associated Capacity Building Needs of the US Virgin Islands", dated
September 2012 (the distribution process does not move at light speed). It
has a number of interesting, if somewhat obvious, points relating to the
"buy-in" of "stakeholders" and the balance between "capacity building", aka
macroeconomics, and conservation, aka "saving the reefs".

While I agree with MOST of the points they make, my comments relate to two
questions/observations in my subconscious that this paper brought  to the
fore. The first relates to a topic that has been widely discussed on the
listserve.  Gene has lamented the "decline in discovery" that has grown out
of the fact that we spend less of our time just "going out and looking
around". I suppose that this is a logical outgrowth of recent crises  - you
feel like a slacker by going out and looking while corals are dieing,

The early need to document reef decline for skeptical politicians led to 20
years of meetings in which we argued over line transects vs belt transects
vs qadrats and so on. As near as I can tell, recent events have shown that
worrying about whether we are trying to detect 0.5% vs 1.0% vs 5% change
was an interesting intellectual exercise but rather pointless in hindsight.

*First, my observation* - What I think has transpired over the past 3-4
decades is a swing of the pendulum from one unproductive extreme to the
equally misguided other end of the arc. When I started out in the mid 70s,
few scientists cared much for the management side of things and probably
felt the only stakeholders resided at the racetrack. In fact, many of my
mentors argued that my efforts to work with park scientists and local
management programs was a dead end for a "real scientist". Of course, that
all changed as NSF money got harder to obtain.... but I won't go there. My
point is that we tended to do our studies for reasons of "pure science" and
management was little more than an afterthought..... on the rare occasions
when it rose to the level of any kind of thought.  The good news is that we
learned a lot of things through serendipity.... especially those of us who
were fortunate enough to work at marine labs and had the ability to return
to the same sites with student and colleagues literally day after day. Many
of both reside on this listserve and I always value their insights. It was
a heady time for a young researcher and I don't regret for a moment the
decision I made that working with the "dark side" (i.e., park managers and
career bureaucrats tasked with the then young coastal zone management
concept.... as in a couple of years old). I have to admit lamenting the
fact that few researchers really cared much about management issues and
words like capacity-building weren't in our lexicon. Certainly, few of us
thought about how our science might inform larger issues and how decisions
might influence the well-being of folks living near reefs and relying on
their ecological services (another term that hadn't evolved yet).

Fast-forward to today and that situation appears to have swung full arc. We
now have management reports, white papers and a host of other documents in
which the actual science is limited to a single paragraph midway in the
report where it will hopefully be overlooked. The focus is on the economic
"realities", interactions between government and particular groups and
those groups with each other. While I won't go so far as to suggest that
the authors of these reports really don't care as much about the reefs as
the process we develop, it does seem that the decline is widely accepted
and, therefore, the focus is putting something in place more than why we
are choosing specific strategies.  Thoughtful discussions consider the
impacts of various regulations on identified groups. However, there is less
discussion than I'd like on whether those regulations are actually doing
anything to protect resources or living systems. In short, we have shifted
from "science with no management" to "management with no science". To head
off endless discussions that parse important subtleties, I will admit that
this is overstatement. However, I challenge anyone to argue that we failed
to embrace the importance of policy in the past and are presently in a
situation where most of those really making policy understand the science
at only the most superficial level. I tell my humanist and social-science
tudents in my reefs class for non-majors that, as scary as it might sound,
by the time the course ends they will know more about both sides than 95%
of the people who set policy. This is not idle flattery.

*Now my question* - Having read a multitude of these kinds of reports, I
have seen excellent discussions about the tension between mitigation and
adaptation. With regard to Climate Change, these often come down to
different players. Mitigation is typically in the wheelhouse of large
industrial nations who are at the heart of the problem and, therefore, have
the ability to adapt to the downside of their growth using all the profits.
Problems with adaptation fall to those unfortunate souls who are probably
least responsible for problems, have the most to lose and are incapable of
adapting on their own.

At the same time, I have seen the concept of "adaptation" creep into the
scientific discussion. I suppose the seeds of this might be early
discussions about how corals "trading up" their zooxanthellae *might* be
better equipped to withstand future temperature shift. There have been many
thoughtful discussions of genetic exchange and how different reproductive
strategies *might* affect community structure under scenarios of increasing
stress. And there have been multiple papers describing how the cast of
"winners" and "losers" *might* shift as stressors are added to the mix.

All of this is wrapped up in the idea of "adaptability" of natural systems.
So, my question is whether we are actually at a point where we can discuss
this scientifically and say with some certainty, "organism/system X is
adaptable in the following way and we need to direct our management
strategies to maximize the likelihood that natural systems can take
advantage of this ability"? or... are we really just floating a series of
hypotheses about what organism might be "adaptable" and in what way.

I ask this because I really don't know and want to hear from people who
know more about this than I do. It strikes me that if it is more like the
latter, we are really just being optimistic and the question is how we go
from "gee, I'd like to think that this is what will happen" to "here are
the ways we can test this hypothesis". Most of what I see seems to me like
the former. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places, so if anyone can help me
by providing papers that have identified scientifically supported
adaptation abilities and how we might integrate them into sound management
practices, I'd love to assign these papers to my class.

Dennis Hubbard
Chair, 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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