[Coral-List] Caribbean reef decline, reality and fairy tales

Peter Sale sale at uwindsor.ca
Tue Jul 8 15:49:27 EDT 2014

Hi coral-listers,
In 2012, Roger Bradbury raised considerable ire amongst his coral reef 
buddies, by daring to paint a bleak picture of the state of the world so 
far as coral reef condition was concerned.  He used an Op-Ed in The New 
York Times to go contrary to the received wisdom that we must not tell 
people bad news because it only turns them off.  Far better to talk about 
the small glimpses of light: the rare MPA that works, the reef that 
mysteriously fails to bleach, the coral transplant project that seems to 
be replenishing reefs – to talk about them even if they are transient as 
well as small.  This helps people feel better about life, while we gently 
convince them that the sky really is, for the most part, falling.  (As you 
may have guessed, I don’t subscribe to this orthodoxy, although I do 
recognize that there are good ways and less effective ways of conveying 
bad news.)
As a recent example of this tendency to gloss reality with a glitter of 
false good news, consider the latest report on the state of the Caribbean 
(Jackson et al 2014).  We first heard about it also in 2012, when Jeremy 
Jackson presented some of the data at ICRS Cairns.  It is good to see IUCN 
has finally released it.
A careful read of this IUCN report provides abundant data, careful 
analyses, and sad conclusions on what has been happening to Caribbean 
reefs.  The science is well done.  The issue of loss of herbivory as a 
likely factor leading to the widespread massive overgrowth of macroalgae 
is appropriately reported, along with its cause – a disease that nearly 
wiped out Diadema antillarum across the region in 1983 (Lessios et al 
1984), and chronic overfishing which has decimated populations of 
herbivorous parrot fishes over most of the region.  Other important 
stressors, particularly the issues of too many tourists, coral diseases 
that were perhaps introduced in ballast water from outside the Caribbean, 
and various forms of pollution are also discussed.  Climate change turns 
out to have not yet had major impacts although those impacts are likely 
The document also notes the absence of quality data and lack of uniform 
monitoring indices that make deciphering what has happened far more 
difficult than it should have been.  In my opinion, the authors fail to 
address the unfortunate lack of solid evidence for most of the causal 
processes inferred – if management interventions had been routinely, and 
appropriately monitored we would be far more certain of the links between 
overfishing, pollution, algal growth, coral recruitment and coral disease 
than we are.  Still, the authors do a generally responsible job of 
assessing competing hypotheses.  They also state, quite clearly that “the 
disparate reef histories clearly demonstrate the folly of attempting to 
understand the causes of coral reef decline for the entire Caribbean as a 
single ecosystem, an approach that ignores the enormous heterogeneity in 
environments and history of human and natural disturbance among different 
reef locations.”  With a careful read, this is a solid report, a 
publication I welcome.
But with a skim of the Executive Summary (the only part also available in 
Spanish or French), or a look at IUCN’s press release, or at various 
stories in the media from local Caribbean newspapers to Time Magazine, a 
rather different story emerges.  This one is far more about the value in 
protecting parrot fishes. 
The Guardian’s headline is typical:  “Caribbean coral reefs ‘will be lost 
within 20 years’ without protection.  Major report warns that loss of 
grazing fish due to pollution and overfishing is a key driver of region’s 
coral decline.” 
IUCN’s own press release begins: “From despair to repair: Dramatic decline 
of Caribbean corals can be reversed.  With only about one-sixth of the 
original coral cover left, most Caribbean coral reefs may disappear in the 
next 20 years, primarily due to the loss of grazers in the region…” 
Whether the authors intended it or not (and I suspect they did not), a 
detailed, difficult, somewhat depressing tale, but with sound and 
constructive recommendations (including the protection of parrotfishes), 
has been morphed by IUCN and the media into an upbeat story about a 
Caribbean-wide serious problem which can be fixed by taking care of parrot 
fishes.  So much for the authors’ warning about the ‘folly’ of expecting a 
single, simple cause of coral decline across the Caribbean.
If all the ostensibly no-take MPAs across the Caribbean were functional, 
we'd have plenty of parrot fishes.  If just one decently scaled experiment 
that enhanced herbivory had been run, or if just one of the governmental 
decisions to protect parrot fishes was implemented with appropriate BACI 
monitoring so there would be data to evaluate, we might actually know if 
restoring herbivory will push the system back through the phase shift (not 
a given).  And, by the way, IUCN, you don't solve problems of coral 
disease or excessive tourism by protecting parrot fishes. 
Once again the simple and optimistic fairy tale has trumped telling the 
real story properly, and the world goes on spinning down while the science 
and conservation community looks on confused.  I KNOW we can do a lot 
Maybe I am catching Gene Shinn’s ‘curmudgeon’ disease?
Peter Sale
University Professor Emeritus
University of Windsor
sale at uwindsor.ca                 @PeterSale3
www.uwindsor.ca/sale           www.petersalebooks.com

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