[Coral-List] New (old) way to murder a coral reef

Douglas Fenner douglasfennertassi at gmail.com
Sat May 16 18:49:16 EDT 2015

Thanks for these clarifications, Richard.  There is a good book on the
history of Chagos due out later this year, to be published by the Chagos
Conservation Trust.  I anticipate it may have many clarifications in it,
including corrections of several myths that have grown up around Chagos.

FUTURE OF US BASE:   I don't think it would be wise to raise anyone's hopes
that the US will willingly walk away from the base (which would, if it
happened, allow the archipelago to be ceded to Mauritius).  Several
documents show its strategic value.  Not least:

The British Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmonds said just recently:

"*This Government, and the Government of our most important ally, the
United States, values the strategic location of the island of Diego Garcia,
and we want to see our partnership there continue."*

DESTRUCTION OF BROADLEAF WOODLAND:  I said that the forest on Diego Garcia
before the US base was built was not a virgin forest, and there was almost
nothing of the original forest left.  Richard sent me privately a photo
taken during the clearing for the airport runway, of vegetation bulldozed,
and some of the visible forest behind includes both coconut palms and other
mixed forest.  However, in the recent article on Chagos in the latest Reef
Encounter, there is the following:

"Of the largest island, Diego Garcia, Stoddart (2001) said that by the time
its military use started “The atoll was by then simply a coconut
plantation. I had to say there was no case in the terrestrial ecology to
object to the military plans…”

A letter from David Stoddart to the Commonwealth Office, dated 24 July
1968, ALSO SAYS:

"Diego is, of course, much altered by man, and there are few natural
features remaining undisturbed.  It is really an extended coconut
plantation from end to end".

You point to the section that Stoddard wrote in the Atoll Research Bulletin
about the vegetation on Diego Garcia.  I quote from the first sentences of
that paper:

“The land vegetation of Diego Garcia consists almost entirely of
coconut-dominated woodland, with some small areas of shrubs and occasional
relict broadleaf trees.  All parts of the atoll have been subject to
continuous human interference for almost two hundred years, and man now
actively controls vegetation growth in coconut plantations in many areas.”

On page 137, his section on “Coconut woodland” begins with:

*“Cocos nucifera* is clearly the dominant tree species in the land
vegetation at Diego Garcia, and has been since at least the middle of the
seventeenth century (Horsburgh 1809, 131; Unieville 1838).”

The first sentence of the section he wrote on broadleaf woodlands that you
pointed to reads:

“Before the spread of planted coconuts, broadleaf woodland must have been
much more extensive at Diego Garcia than now, but few remnants of this
woodland now remain.”

Near as I can tell from Figure 31 in that paper is that the area where the
airport now is, was almost all labelled “Cocos Bon Dieu”, not broadleaf
forest, and the area where storage tanks and contract workers quarters are,
were mostly broadleaf forest, and the “Cocos Bon Dieu” covered more area
that was used for these facilities than the broadleaf forest covered.
Anyone who wants to can compare the map in Stoddard (which is open-access)
to that on Google Earth.  His description of “Cocos Bon Dieu” says that
there “the coconuts themselves are irregularly distributed and largely
self-sown, with intermediate storeys of small trees and tall shrubs 6-8 m
tall and a luxuriant ground layer (Plate 38).”  Anyone who wants to see
what that looks like can see it in Plate 38, and the coconut plantation in
Plate 37, and broadleaf woodland in Plate 36.

David Stoddart as many are aware knew a great deal about such tropical
islands.  As he says, Diego Garcia was a plantation when the US military
began building the base.  Coconut trees, rats, donkeys, mosquitoes, guano
mining, etc. had been introduced by humans and rats were at “plague”
proportions by the late 1700s!  (See forthcoming book referred to above).
But it also was not worthless of course.

THE REEFS:  I fully agree that the Diego Garcia reefs are not pristine.  I
don't know anybody who has claimed that they were, even though its coral
recovered very rapidly after the 1998 mass bleaching mortality and its reef
fish biomass, while lower than in the other atolls in the group, are still
as good or better than most MPAs in that ocean!  Regarding comments that
suggested that the reefs on Diego Garcia had been trashed, I said they had
not all been trashed.  Your website documents the ships' anchorages area,
and certainly that and harbor construction destroyed corals in those areas
from the 1970s.   As far as I know, you are surely right that there is no
pre-military baseline data, so we will never know exactly how it was.
However, I have seen reefs on the other atolls of Chagos, and I can say
that the reef areas I saw on Diego Garcia did not look damaged to me
compared to them, and they are some of the best left in the Indian Ocean.

    Several points.  First, this is a military base.  It is, I think, to be
expected that there will be some modifications to the atoll to make it
possible for them to carry out their mission.  The decision to put the base
there, long before I ever heard of the place, took that into consideration,
as that 1965 visit of Stoddart shows.  Any place you have people, there
will be impacts to the natural environment.  A military base has to do some
things, like build airport runways and dredge ship channels, if it is to
have an airport and a port for ships.

     Second, the areas damaged by the borrow pit and by dredging and anchor
and anchor chain damage are much larger than any of us would prefer.
However, they are a TINY fraction of the whole outer reef, and a TINY
fraction of the whole lagoon area.  The lagoon is huge, even though Diego
Garcia is one of the smaller atolls in the archipelago.  Check out how tiny
the ships look in the lagoon in the picture on Richard's website, or take a
look at the size of the ships compared to the lagoon on Google Earth (and
notice there weren't 10 of the ships when the photo was taken).  Although
the outer reef slopes are not wide, they go all the way around the atoll,
which is a significant size atoll.  You could spend a lifetime trying to
dive every square meter or even hectare of that outer reef slope.  And the
borrow pits are not on the outer slopes where the good coral cover is.  I
spotted the borrow pits on Google Earth on the outside on the west just
north of the airport.  They are in the reef flat.  Reef flats normally have
low coral cover because there is little accommodation space for them to
grow in, low tides kill the corals.  The area dug up is a small proportion
of the reef flat around Diego Garcia, looks to me like less than 10% of the
reef flat.  Which brings me back to my original statement, that the reefs
have not all been trashed.  In fact, I think that only a small fraction of
the reef has been badly damaged.  No question that there is damage,
however, and none of us wants that.

      Third, I have been on an island elsewhere in the archipelago, which
had been inhabited by the Chagossians.  Almost all of that island, which is
probably the largest other than Diego Garcia (but still tiny!), is densely
covered with coconut trees, and the part I was on had no other trees
whatsoever.  That island, and the larger islands that had people on them,
were covered almost entirely by coconut palms, while the smaller islands
had essentially virgin forest on them.  The difference is that the
residents cleared and then planted coconut trees on the larger islands, for
the coconut plantation.  That's how the owners made money.  Where people
destroyed the natural forest completely on the larger islands, the natural
forest has not recovered at all.  There used to be large seabird colonies,
but they can't nest in the coconut palms, so they are only on the smaller
islands with native trees that they can nest in.  For all the complaining
about the effects of the military base, I haven't heard anyone complaining
about the effects of the coconut plantations that the Chagossians worked.
Now don't get me wrong, the destruction of native forests was NOT the fault
of the Chagossians who were slaves and later poor workers.   It was the
Plantation owners decision.  Of course it was generations ago, and the
environment and ecology were not part of what people thought about or much
cared about back then. Few if any cared, anywhere.

     This does not excuse environmental damage of course.  I don't know a
way to build an airport runway without clearing whatever was there (or
dredge and deposit sand as is being done in the South China Sea).  As a US
citizen, I favor putting the US military on the spot if they damage the
environment when they don't have to.

POLLUTION:  Richard's website provides information that was released about
the ships in the lagoon releasing sewage into the lagoon.  If it is not
illegal, it is for sure unethical.  Which is surely why the Navy did not
want to release that information.  By the way, you say Sheppard chooses not
to release pollution information publically.  I’m sure you understand about
the Official Secrets Act.  If it is covered by that, we wouldn’t want to
encourage anyone to break the law.  You say that it is odd that the US and
UK BIOT governments have claimed that Freedom of Information is not
something that applies in the Chagos.  But the pollution report is
presumably about Diego Garcia, which is a military base.  Surely the
military has things which are not public knowledge and not subject to
Freedom of Information laws, but that may depend on what the laws are in
different countries.  But I wouldn’t expect open access to military secrets.

    In 2014, we dove in the lagoon on patch reefs that had abundant coral,
without a thought about whether we were at risk for catching a disease from
the sewage.  There was no sign of damage to corals from sewage, though it
would likely take quite a large and comprehensive study to demonstrate any
effects of sewage on any corals in the lagoon.  The lagoon is huge and lots
of reefs are not close to ships.  That doesn't excuse the release of
sewage, but I think that it provides a little context for evaluating
possible damage to coral from the releases.

    I repeat that, "in chemical pollution terms, Diego Garcia is likely to
be the cleanest inhabited atoll in the world."

    So, Diego Garcia, which has a military base on it, has impacts to both
the island and the reefs from the military base, and there are also
lingering impacts of the longer previous period when it was used as a
plantation.  Some areas of reef have been damaged by military
construction.  In spite of that, most of the reef area of Diego Garcia has
not been trashed.  Other islands in the archipelago still have large
effects from the coconut plantations too, while the smaller islands which
were not cleared and planted with coconuts, have very little human impacts,
and are near-pristine or pristine.  The reefs of Chagos are near-pristine,
the best anywhere in the Indian Ocean, and probably rival Ningaloo Reef on
the west coast of Australia, for the largest near-pristine coral reef
system left in the Indian Ocean, if not the whole world.  The whole
archipelago is worth saving.

Cheers,  Doug

On Mon, Apr 27, 2015 at 12:56 AM, Richard Dunne <RichardPDunne at aol.com>

> It is worth knowing the facts.
> FUTURE OF US BASE: It is valued at 3 billion US dollars. We already know
> that the US considers that the agreement (called an Exchange of Notes)
> should 'roll over' for a further 20 years to 2036. It is NOT a lease and
> there is no requirement for renewal (it rolls over automatically unless one
> side withdraws) and the US pays nothing. The UK is unlikely to revoke the
> treaty but it may seek to vary the terms; it has until December 2016 to do
> so. The UK Government policy on this awaits the result of the General
> Election in 2 weeks time which will elect a new government.
> DESTRUCTION OF BROADLEAF WOODLAND: Doug says that "By the way, the airport
> runway was not built on virgin forest, it was built on the old plantation,
> where almost nothing of the original forest was left". The map in Atoll
> Research Bulletin [No 149 - Stoddart et al 1971 - Fig 31] shows extensive
> areas of "Broadleaf Woodland" on the western arm which must have been
> bulldozed to create the airport and the tank storage areas. Stoddart's
> description of this woodland type can be found on page 136-7.
> THE REEFS: it is a case of shifting baselines. Doug saw what it was like
> in 2014 not what the reefs were before the US started construction. Since
> there was no comprehensive underwater survey prior to construction we will
> never know the extent of the changes. The 'borrow pits' which were mined
> from the coral rock on the western seaward side can still be seen on Google
> Earth. In the lagoon there has been extensive dredging to create deepwater
> ship channels and land reclamation for a port facility. About 10 very large
> military transport ships are anchored in the northern lagoon - their anchor
> chains are know to cause damage to areas of coral growth.
> POLLUTION: It is odd that the UK and BIOT Government have refused to
> release the records that are referred to in the Sheppard 2012 paper,
> claiming that Freedom of Information is not something that applies in the
> Chagos. Charles has the information but has never offered to release it.
> The UK paid many tens of thousands of pounds to legal teams to protect
> these records from disclosure. On 6 March 2014 the UK Government was forced
> to make a public statement concerning sewage pollution from ships in the
> lagoon, not because it wanted to but because it had been ordered to release
> the information by the UK Information Commissioner. Prior to that the
> Government had refused to release this - see:
> https://sites.google.com/site/thechagosarchipelagofacts/diego-garcia/sewage
> .
> Richard Dunne
> On 27/04/2015 02:41, Douglas Fenner wrote:
>> Magnus,
>>       In my own personal opinion, I very much doubt the US is going to
>> walk
>> away from the Diego Garcia military base.  They have spent billions on it,
>> suggesting to me that they consider it important.  I would think that it
>> is
>> considered a geopolitically strategic military base, and given the
>> instability of the Middle East, I'd be amazed if they left.  My guess is
>> that the US and UK both want the base to remain.  That's just a guess,
>> maybe when the base lease comes up for renewal, they will say they don't
>> want or need it anymore.  But I personally think that is extremely
>> unlikely, and wishful thinking.  I certainly wish for peace, but I don't
>> think that's a realistic likelihood anytime in the near future.
>>        I got to do some diving at Diego Garcia as part of an expedition
>> last
>> year.  I saw reefs that looked pretty healthy to me.  The reefs there are
>> certainly not all trashed or murdered.  There is a picture on the cover of
>> the new Reef Encounter, taken at Diego Garcia, in case anyone would like
>> to
>> see what they look like.  Open access.  That photo shows much less coral
>> than much of the reefs there have, I saw lots of healthy looking tables 10
>> feet or more in diameter.  The reefs throughout Chagos including Diego
>> Garcia were hit hard by the mass coral bleaching in 1998, and a lot of
>> coral was killed.  But coral has increased dramatically since then,
>> particularly table corals which have grown fast.  This is as much true on
>> Diego Garcia as other parts of Chagos, and I saw lots of big table corals
>> in Diego Garcia on some of the knolls in the lagoon.  Figure 5 in Sheppard
>> et al. 2012 shows just as high coral cover on Diego Garcia as on the other
>> atolls, as of 2006.  On page 248, there is a review of the studies of
>> chemical contamination on Diego Garcia and the rest of the archipelago.
>> That section begins with, and I quote, "Extensive pollution monitoring
>> takes place in Diego Garcia. ‘Final Governing Standards’ and routine
>> procedures
>> require regular analyses in US laboratories of over 100 metals and organic
>> substances according to US operating procedures. Almost all analyses
>> report
>> levels below detectable or reporting limits."  The last sentence says, "In
>> summary, from a chemical contaminant perspective, the marine
>> environment  surrounding
>> the Chagos Archipelago can be considered to be near pristine and in
>> chemical pollution terms, Diego Garcia is likely to be the cleanest
>> inhabited atoll in the world."
>>        By the way, the airport runway was not built on virgin forest, it
>> was
>> built on the old plantation, where almost nothing of the original forest
>> was left.
>>        Cheers,  Doug
>> Sheppard, C.R.C. and 39 co-authors.  2012.  Reefs and islands of the
>> Chagos
>> Archipelago, Indian Ocean: why it is the world's largest no-take marine
>> protected area.  Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems
>> 22:
>> 232-261.    (check Google Scholar)
>> On Sat, Apr 11, 2015 at 4:51 AM, Magnus Johnson <m.johnson at hull.ac.uk>
>> wrote:
>>  I absolutely agree - The situation with Mauritius is quite tense.  The US
>>> should leave Diego Garcia now unless the Chagossians choose to keep them
>>> there.  The UK should transport Chagossians back to their homeland and
>>> pay
>>> them significant compensation.  The Chagossians should determine the
>>> conservation of their waters.  The world should support them and the
>>> sustained conservation of Chagos and surrounding waters on a legitimate
>>> footing.
>>> http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-chagossians-the-indian-ocean-islanders-exiled-from-their-home-and-struggling-to-make-ends-meet-in-britain-10169107.html
>>> Coral reef conservation cannot be sustainable in a political, moral and
>>> legal vacuum.  We cannot pretend to hold the moral high ground and
>>> encourage or demand better behaviour when our behaviours and inabilities
>>> to
>>> conserve our own back yards are and have been at times is just as bad as
>>> that of China.
>>> "How is it that supposed experts and "guardians of nature" come here
>>> after
>>> having failed to conserve trees and wildlife in their places of origin?"
>>> (Maasai community leader; from Dowie 2011, Conservation Refugees)
>>>   ________________________________________
>>> From: Phil Dustan [dustanp at cofc.edu]
>>> Sent: 10 April 2015 15:23
>>> To: Magnus  Johnson
>>> Cc: Coral List
>>> Subject: Re: [Coral-List] New (old) way to murder a coral reef
>>> Magnus,
>>>    So Just because a bunch of reefs have been murdered by military powers
>>> over time there is no reason to take the destruction to new and higher
>>> levels on purpose, especially when it is in violation of international
>>> law
>>> and aggravates an already tense political problem (
>>> http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/10/us-china-southchinasea-reach-idUSKBN0N10YJ20150410
>>> ).
>>> On Thu, Apr 9, 2015 at 12:29 PM, Magnus Johnson <m.johnson at hull.ac.uk
>>> <mailto:m.johnson at hull.ac.uk>> wrote:
>>> People in glass houses . . . .
>>> https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=https-3A__www.google.co.uk_maps_place_Diego-2BGarcia-2BMilitary-2BBase_-40-2D7.3914155-2C72.4053261-2C61220m_data-3D-213m1-211e3-214m2-213m1-211s0x2492724c04a8a721-3A0xbce8b282922bb016&d=AwIFAg&c=7MSSWy9Bs2yocjNQzurxOQ&r=mxnjGj1-K1cYCH-JH1g-7Q&m=yzWpp1zsQBYO6fwtFB7R0j7PJl0TyzMzAGigu1jlOKQ&s=jcitp4LPn5shs-8B1hkgtlb__jTC49lsUbNoFcYYJcM&e=
>>> (UK & US: disputed territory, damage to reefs and wildlife, unlicensed
>>> fishing, riding roughshod over international conventions)
>>> ________________________________________
>>> ________________________________________
> ---
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Douglas Fenner
Contractor with Ocean Associates, Inc.
PO Box 7390
Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799  USA

phone 1 684 622-7084

"belief in climate change is optional, participation is not."

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website:  http://independent.academia.edu/DouglasFenner

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