[Coral-List] fish and algae - and people

Nicole Crane nicrane at cabrillo.edu
Wed Feb 19 17:32:45 EST 2014

I do have one more, and one I feel strongly that students need to 
consider.  This prompted by the latest comments from Steve about 
management, as well as the suggestions of 'seeding' Diadema (I'm 
reminded of all the times we have played management God and things have 
gone terribly awry).

I think we need to be careful how we define what the  'natural 
landscape' is, and to recognize that our definition of a natural system 
of course comes from our cultural landscape.  In many coral reef 
systems, humans have been a part of that natural landscape for thousands 
of years.  Indeed they have shaped, maintained and altered the 'natural' 
landscape since long before we established what a 'pristine' baseline 
might have been (I speak here really about the tropical Pacific, but 
take a look at the great marine ecology work being done with the Haida 
Gwaii in the Pacific Northwest) .  These indigenous people were also 
stewards of marine systems, for their livelihoods and cultural integrity 
depend directly on the ocean.  As we erode the cultural landscape 
through globalization and other forces, I would suggest we are also 
contributing to the erosion of the ecological landscape as the knowledge 
for how to manage it is lost.  This is not to say I am advocating for 
keeping modernization away from indigenous Pacific islanders, for that's 
not a reasonable approach.  But I am suggesting they can be our best 
partners, and in fact leaders, in studying and conserving these coral 
reef systems.

In Micronesian outer islands people still live quite traditionally, and 
what's more, they still autonomously govern hundreds of thousands of 
square miles of the most biodiverse reef systems on Earth - an obvious 
conservation opportunity. Working WITH them to solve some of our 
scientific questions, and to develop management using their vast 
knowledge of their oceans, protection and conservation of which is woven 
into the very fabric that holds their culture together, might be a wise 
strategy.  Let me give you an example from our work in Micronesia:  It 
has been clear in fisheries management that using few (and impactful) 
extraction methods can drive down stocks and interfere with diversity 
and trophic relationships (trophic forcing etc.).  By that same logic, 
many, less impactful extraction methods likely supports diversity.  
Those data are harder to come by though.  In the outer islands of Yap 
state - for example on Woleai Atoll, historically people used over 70 
different fishing methods.  Even hook and line bottom fishing had 
different names depending on how deep you fished, what size the hook 
was, and which fish was targeted.  Associated with many of these were 
(are) taboos and rituals for preparation that translate, in our 'speak', 
directly into conservation and management.  Closing areas during certain 
times of year, bad luck befalling your family if you eat a large 
grouper, or catch more than 4 are examples. The fact that many of those 
large grouper, during those times of year, are the gravid females, and 
hold the reproductive potential for the population, is a scientific 
finding that simply supports what they seem to already know.  In fact 
the regulations and traditions surrounding resource extraction and 
protection are impossibly intricate and complex.

Now, but not for more than a generation really, there are probably a 
handful of fishing practices, though many of those complicated 
regulations still exist, as does the cultural framework for their 
implementation.  Consequently, numbers and diversity of fish have 
declined (and likely some of those critters under the rocks too), per 
the people's own observations. Although I don't have a baseline, our 
surveys suggest the same.  What to do then?

I suggest that 'protecting' these reefs with western management plans 
such as financially negotiated MPA's may in fact speed up their 
decline.  We have in front of us the best conservationists with well 
tested management plans living right there, full time. Imparting our 
idea of good management without consulting with them is naive at best, 
and ineffective at worst.  We (our group) have found a wealth of 
conservation knowledge in these people, and if paired with modern 
science, we make a great team to negotiate around 'new' methods such as 
night spearfishing.  I am able to discuss the ecological consequences of 
targeting large parrotfish at night - the role of herbivores and the 
sequential hermaphroditism, and they are able to suggest ways to limit 
it within their existing system of regulations, which as I have 
mentioned is vastly complicated, and involves multiple social and 
cultural mediators. We are achieving unprecedented results with this 
approach, and it appears to be reviving fish stocks as well as 
strengthening tradition.  Its certainly energizing the people, and 
deeply informing my own approach to conservation.

Indeed people are a part of the ocean landscape and our global 
culturescape that needs to be protected, for without them I do believe 
these systems will slip into the global marine system decline driven not 
only by climate change, but by misguided management and foreign fishing 
enterprises....sometimes the answer to protection lies in the very 
people we think we need to manage. Maybe we need to try harder to listen 
and learn first rather than dictate the answer...as scientists I think 
we are programmed to impart findings, be critical of others' findings, 
propose empirically supported plans and ideas.  Those are part of what 
is great about the science process, but there are shortfalls. We in 
academia with credentials and years of research barely scratch the 
surface of what there is to know. But we aren't taught to listen to what 
people from other realities (cultures) know, to gain a glimpse of coral 
reef conservation from their experience  - that's the realm of 
anthropology.  I'm suggesting we try - for we may find not only a true 
ally, but a new paradigm.  I do NOT mean to denegrade science, 
scientists, the or the science process in any way.  Rather, I mean to 
suggest we can pair our endeavors and the information we acquire with 
others in a coupled approach to solving immense problems. After all, 
they've been observing and solving them for Millennia.

Sorry for such a long diatribe...I sort of got thinking here.

On 2/19/14, 11:46 PM, Dennis Hubbard wrote:
> Nicole:
> Wow! Great observations. Thanks so much!!
> What I have learned from this back-and-forth is that we are talking 
> about a very nuanced relationship that changes with the relative 
> supremacy of ancillary players. Eventually, we will probably move onto 
> the "what do we do about it" phase of the discussion, but I really 
> hope to see more observations and ideas regardless of how robust the 
> contributors might feel their observations are. My reading at this 
> point is that this relationship is different in different places and 
> different in individual perceptions and observations. At this point, I 
> have no idea where this discussion will end up, but for me it has been 
> one of the more satisfying discussions I've had because I'm actually 
> learning something about a topic that I thought I'd figured out long ago.
> Perhaps the message is that "scientific" truth changes with time. I'm 
> not quite sure why I'm having so much fun demonstrating how much I 
> don't understand something, but thanks to all who have contributed 
> observations to the thread. Unless I hear from someone that they'd 
> like to remain anonymous to my students, I'd like to share these 
> contributions with my /Biology, Geology & Politics of Coral Reefs/ 
> class. I think this is a great demonstration of how science should work.
> Dennis
> On Tue, Feb 18, 2014 at 6:21 PM, Nicole Crane <nicrane at cabrillo.edu 
> <mailto:nicrane at cabrillo.edu>> wrote:
>     This is a great discussion, and I felt inclined to weigh in.
>      We've been
>     surveying reefs in Micronesia, and while we have quantitative data
>     sets,
>     we didn't look specifically at damselfish, so I'm afraid I have no
>     empirical evidence for the following observation (other than having
>     looked at many reefs):
>     The 'healthiest' reefs we see (high coral morphology diversity, high
>     cover, high biomass and diversity of fish etc.), are places where
>     I see
>     damselfish (on shallow flats) and their 'gardens'.  The more degraded
>     reefs seem to have far fewer of them (I'll mention that Acropora is
>     harvested from some reefs for the lime that is chewed with beetlenut).
>     Not that this bolsters any specific argument, but I am reminded of how
>     we need to be careful to make sensational, simplistic stories from a
>     complex stage.  I am reminded of the African Elephant who has long
>     been
>     blamed for their destructive eating habits and the negative impacts on
>     acacia trees (an ecosystem disservice?).  Yet, by eating the seed pods
>     of certain acacias, they sterilize the seeds, protecting them from
>     certain death from a parasitic grub that will otherwise kill them.
>      Upon
>     defecation on to the fertile grassland soil, a very high percentage of
>     these seeds will germinate (an ecosystem service?).
>     Thus the charismatic mesofaunal damselfish (to distinguish it from the
>     marine megafaunal superstars) probably has a complicated story behind
>     it.  Steve said it well!
>     Maybe its our responsibility in part to make sure that when these
>     stories are told in a public forum, simplification and
>     sensationalism is
>     really not necessary - the whole story is really the interesting one.
>     Nicole
>     On 2/18/14, 10:34 PM, Steve Gittings - NOAA Federal wrote:
>     > Dennis,
>     >
>     > Interesting observation.  Perhaps the essence of the "delicate
>     balance" is
>     > that, when an ecosystem has it, the natural state enables the
>     ecosystem
>     > service  - predators keeping damselfish in check, allowing those
>     surviving
>     > ones to tend gardens while keeping  few corals out.  It still
>     leaves plenty
>     > of space for other species and interactions, each of which
>     provides its own
>     > services.  When out of balance, the natural behaviors, which of
>     course
>     > continue, turn what had been an ecosystem service into what can
>     only be
>     > considered an "ecosystem disservice" - high damselfish populations
>     > inhibiting corals and promoting algae.  In this case, the problem is
>     > exacerbated not only by overfishing, but by the *Diadema *dieoff.
>     >
>     > sg
>     >
>     >
>     > On Sun, Feb 16, 2014 at 5:56 PM, Dennis Hubbard
>     > <dennis.hubbard at oberlin.edu
>     <mailto:dennis.hubbard at oberlin.edu>>wrote:
>     >
>     >> When I was a young reef geologist, I was told by most
>     biologists visiting
>     >> West Indies Lab that Damselfish "farm" the algal turfs and
>     actually crop
>     >> them for maximum yield. As such, they help maintain this
>     autotrophic system
>     >> which transforms organic carbon and nutrient into a form (algal
>     tissue)
>     >> that can work its way up the food chain. Walter Adey used turfs
>     to maintain
>     >> balance in his "microcosms" at the Smithsonian, has been a valued
>     >> consultant to aquaria (including the large GBR tank) and has
>     received
>     >> patents for "algal scrubbers". So my sense was that the service
>     provided by
>     >> both the turfs and the fish that regulated them is still
>     recognized.
>     >>
>     >> I was just looking for photos to shamelessly use for class and
>     came across
>     >> an NPR piece (*Tiny Damselfish May Destroy a Ree*f) dated
>     August 11 in
>     >> which Richard Harris (who regularly appears on *Morning
>     Edition* and *All
>     >> Things Considered*) described a "war going on between corals and 'a
>     >> creeping menace'.... algae". This crux of the story is that
>     parrotfish are
>     >> the "allies of coral" and 'damselfish promote algal growth by
>     killing coral
>     >> to create new space for algal colonization'. Enter the
>     fishermen who have
>     >> taken out the predators who used to "keep the damselfish in
>     check". The
>     >> result is that damselfish are disproportionately opening up
>     more space by
>     >> killing corals while scaring off the "coral-friendly" parrots
>     by shear
>     >> tenacity.
>     >>
>     >> Might anyone put this into perspective for me so I don't tell a
>     story that
>     >> is no longer true? Each of these points has a ring of truth...
>     overfishing
>     >> is real and algae can inhibit coral recruitment. However, the
>     >> transformation of damsels from fish "tending their gardens" to
>     "the primary
>     >> ally of the creeping manace" seems a bit dramatic. It also seems to
>     >> conflate algal turfs (which I understand the damsels are
>     cultivating) and
>     >> macroalgae (which can be equally damaging to both corals and
>     turfs by
>     >> shading and a host of other pathways).
>     >>
>     >> As I hope to get to this in about a week in class, I'd
>     appreciate it if
>     >> folks who are closer to this can give me a sense of whether
>     eradicating
>     >> algal turfs and the scurrilous damselfish that encourage them
>     is the new
>     >> reef paradigm. If there is a place I can send a smart
>     undergraduate (not
>     >> necessarily a NS student) to read about this new balance, that
>     would be
>     >> even better. What I have read has argued that there are ties
>     between
>     >> macro-algal proliferation and both overfishing and increased
>     nutrient
>     >> input. While there have been numerous thoughtful discussions
>     about the
>     >> details of these interactions, I have understood that both of these
>     >> possible linkages are are still considered to act at some
>     level. I can also
>     >> imagine a delicate balance between the benefits of encouraging
>     turfs and
>     >> clearing space by chomping on live coral.... and that fishing
>     has impacted
>     >> this. My question is whether situation portrayed in this NPR
>     interview is
>     >> correct and that the damselfish/turf ralationship shas gon awry
>     to the
>     >> point that we need to stop worrying about lionfish and focus on
>     what I
>     >> agree is, "pound-for-pound", the meanest fish on the reef.
>     >>
>     >> Dennis
>     >>
>     >> --
>     >> Dennis Hubbard
>     >> Chair, Dept of Geology-Oberlin College Oberlin OH 44074
>     >> (440) 775-8346 <tel:%28440%29%20775-8346>
>     >>
>     >> * "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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>     >>
>     >
>     >
>     --
>     Nicole L. Crane
>     Cabrillo College
>     Division of Natural and Applied Sciences
>     831-479-5094 <tel:831-479-5094>
>     nicrane at cabrillo.edu <mailto:nicrane at cabrillo.edu>
>     www.cabrillo.edu/~ncrane <http://www.cabrillo.edu/%7Encrane>
>     Oceanic Society
>     Senior Conservation Scientist
>     www.oceanicsociety.org <http://www.oceanicsociety.org>
>     _______________________________________________
>     Coral-List mailing list
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> -- 
> 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/"

Nicole L. Crane
Cabrillo College
Division of Natural and Applied Sciences
nicrane at cabrillo.edu

Oceanic Society
Senior Conservation Scientist

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