[Coral-List] fish and algae - and people

Michael Risk riskmj at mcmaster.ca
Thu Feb 20 12:19:43 EST 2014

Hello Nicole.

Thank you for that heartfelt message on a subject on which you obviously feel very strongly. Some of the elements in the message took me down memory lane, and some others need to be looked at with the dispassionate eye of the paleontologist. 

First of all, although we search for simple solutions, bringing back Diadema  will not bring back the reefs of the Caribbean. The record shows pretty clearly that the decline was well underway by the time the urchins started dying. Secondly, we need to be careful in our assumption that native peoples are natural stewards of the environment. In North America, we have the example of the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna to remind us that people are people.

Most politicians, if they have any formal education, tend to come from the social sciences. All too many of them go through law school. There is often a predisposition to mistrust science (after all, science often tells politicians what they cannot do), which leads them to embrace TEK ( Traditional Ecological Knowledge). The Canadian federal government seems to have taken this to its logical end, and has virtually abandoned curiosity-driven science. Canada is also in the grip of political correctness, which of course embraces TEK without reservation.

I do not wish to downplay TEK. My advice to my graduate students, whenever we came to a new project site or a new country, was "assume you know nothing. Go and find the oldest fisherman in town, and sit by his feet for a few days."  Many of us know of the seminal work of Bob Johannes, in collecting TEK on Pacific fisheries. At the same time, TEK is top-down management-one listens to the elders. There is also the implicit assumption that one is working with ecosystems that have not changed. Scientific management is bottom-up, in that science is that aspect of human life in which decisions are made with reference to the results of experiments.

"Science" here does not mean flooding the area with highly-trained and expensive people from developed nations. In fact, some of my own work has been designed to be locally accessible: the techniques  to assess sediment stress on reefs described in Cortes and Risk, 1985 are available to anyone with access to equipment found in any high school lab, and in Holmes et al. 2000 we outline reef monitoring techniques that can be taught to local villagers in a few hours.

CIDA , Canada's development agency (before the feds closed it) employed approximately 1300 social scientists. (Evidently they used to have a fish guy, but they let him go "because he was always telling us things were complicated.") When CIDA started working in Indonesia, they were ecstatic to discover that there was a traditional management system for marine resources called "Sasi", largely in the Moluccas. Millions of dollars were thrown at Sasi: describing, explaining, writing long monographs extolling the virtues of, etc. etc. True, this was TEK marine management, no more dealing with nasty complicated science: and only on close observation did the wheels begin to fall off.

First of all, although Sasi was supposed to be community-based, the final authority rested with the Sultan. (And I think you will find that in most coastal settings, this would be the case: final authority will be with some old man or group of men.) Secondly, it applied only from the high tide mark to the breaker zone. And finally, being based on traditional knowledge, it was ill-suited to deal with changing conditions. Today's reefs are facing an onslaught of stresses unlike any they have previously encountered, and hence I would suggest that ALL traditional reef management systems need to be recalibrated. 

Swimming against this tide will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. In another Canadian example, we have here in Ontario the spectacle of youths from the local Six Nations reserves coming out into local farmland, and filling the beds of pickups with deer they had shot out of season-because they had a traditional right, and they also had traditional knowledge of managing the resource. No one would touch them. No one had the courage to point out that the White-Tailed deer they had just shot were recent immigrants to the area, having moved north with the coming of farming. The "deer" for which they had management systems were in fact Woodland Caribou, now extinct in southern Ontario. There is also the possibility that TEK could be distorted for financial reasons-people are people, after all. Polar Bears occur in several different sub-populations in the Canadian North. Some seem to be on the increase, whereas other populations have declined catastrophically. Our Minister of the Environment is an Inuit woman. The Inuit in Canada have the exclusive right to hunt polar bears, although they can sell licenses to foreigners. A large amount of money is involved. The Minister tells us that there are plenty of polar bears out there, because her brother is on the land and sees them all the time. There is no management plan, traditional or modern, that cannot be subverted by large amounts of cash.

I think TEK has a role, but its conclusions and policies must constantly be verified with reference to good, objective science, ideally science undertaken by the locals themselves. The ecosystems are changing, and TEK runs the risk of becoming irrelevant.


On 2014-02-19, at 5:32 PM, Nicole Crane wrote:

> 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*"
>>>> _______________________________________________
>>>> Coral-List mailing list
>>>> Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
>>    <mailto:Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>
>>>> http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list
>>    --
>>    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
>>    Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov <mailto:Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>
>>    http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list
>> -- 
>> 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
> 831-479-5094
> nicrane at cabrillo.edu
> www.cabrillo.edu/~ncrane
> Oceanic Society
> Senior Conservation Scientist
> www.oceanicsociety.org
> _______________________________________________
> Coral-List mailing list
> Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list

Michael Risk
riskmj at mcmaster.ca

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