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

Bill Allison allison.billiam at gmail.com
Wed Jul 9 12:23:58 EDT 2014

Downplaying of the role of climate change is unfortunate because it affords
these mentalists a spoon-bending opportunity.


On Wed, Jul 9, 2014 at 9:35 AM, Szmant, Alina <szmanta at uncw.edu> wrote:

> Hi Peter:
> I have not read this report yet, but I have heard from a couple of
> colleagues close to this issue that Jackson's downplaying of the role of
> climate change (and to be more precise, extreme warming events...aka global
> warming) in the Caribbean really ignores that major factors, the overriding
> factors, in Caribbean coral reef decline.  I think there is a critique of
> this report in prep by well recognized Caribbean coral reef scientists.
> While herbivory is obviously a critical process on coral reefs and I
> totally support protection of parrotfishes and other herbivores: common
> sense, looking around the Caribbean and the experimental study of Williams
> and Polunin (2001) show that there are not enough parrotfishes/herbivores
> out there to eat all the algae on a reef with less than 10 % cover.  Loss
> of parrotfishes did not cause bleaching and disease outbreaks.  Even major
> coastal development did not cause much coral mortality compared to the
> 1987, 1998, 2005 bleaching events to list just a few of the most dramatic
> ones.  The Florida Keys has lots of parrotfishes (they are not preferred
> food for Americans) and there are plenty of algae in spite of huge herds of
> midnights, blues and acanthurids, as well as stoplights, red band and the
> smaller species.
> Human nature is not to bother until there is a crisis...the worse the
> crisis the more we respond.  We don't do much about "well this could be a
> problem in a few years.." which is why most coral reef 'management' and
> conservation efforts have failed...no urgency! In the case of coral reefs,
> the case for urgency has not been made well.  On the other hand, decisions
> about changing our global economy away from fossil fuels to renewables and
> to stop deforestation, and to slow and reverse human population
> growth/size, and to changes our patterns of consumption away from
> consumerism and meat eating will not be made because of our concern for
> coral reefs alone.  If you look around you (except for you Peter who live
> up in beautiful temperate forests), the natural terrestrial world is
> quickly disappearing to become part of the human footprint of urbanization
> and industrial agriculture.
> Alina
> "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds
> discuss people." Eleanor Roosevelt
> "The time is always right to do what is right"  Martin Luther King
> *************************************************************************
> Dr. Alina M. Szmant
> Professor of Marine Biology
> AAUS Scientific Diving Lifetime Achievement Awardee
> Center for Marine Science
> University of North Carolina Wilmington
> 5600 Marvin Moss Ln
> Wilmington NC 28409 USA
> tel:  910-962-2362  fax: 910-962-2410  cell: 910-200-3913
> http://people.uncw.edu/szmanta
> *******************************************************
> -----Original Message-----
> From: coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov [mailto:
> coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov] On Behalf Of Peter Sale
> Sent: Tuesday, July 08, 2014 3:49 PM
> To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> Subject: [Coral-List] Caribbean reef decline, reality and fairy tales
> 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
> coming.
> 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
> better.
> 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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