[Coral-List] The GBR has died (again).

Lescinsky, Halard hlescinsky at otterbein.edu
Thu Mar 16 10:45:32 EDT 2017

The Great Barrier Reef died again.  It said so in the headline on Page 2 of
my local paper in an article originating from the NY Times ("Large sections
of the Great Barrier Reef are now dead").  But unlike the GBR’s previous
death (the Outside/Facebook announcement) last fall, this time the
journalism was responsible.  It quotes Terry Hughes as saying “literally
two-thirds of the reefs were dying and are now dead”.

I have great respect for Terry as a scientist and as a leading
international point person for coral reefs, but as in the GBR’s previous
obituary, I question the wisdom of such a pronouncement, and indeed what it
even means.  Is there an agreed upon definition of what a “dead reef”
constitutes?  For example, is there a maximum live coral cover required (ie:
 A reef is dead if its live coral cover is below x%) or is there some other
metric to consider?

I see several main problems with defining a dead reef.  The first is that
reefs aren’t alive in the first place- they are an area or an ecosystem.  We
are unlikely to say that a mountain or a canyon or a swamp is “dead”- these
are places with many physical and biological attributes.  Death is a word
most often associated with organisms, and dead organisms are dead
forever.  Reef
“reincarnation” would not be expected by the public, even though we all
know that reefs are structured, even in the best of times, by disturbance
and resilience.

The second is that there are lots of organisms that live on a reef and I
have had students enjoy the thriving life on a reef that has no live coral
cover- but lots of fish and urchins and the like.  Is the community dead if
the corals are dead?  Third, reefs have a variety of zones, and while most
monitoring is at shallow depths (10m) that may bleach intensely, deeper
zones (including the now well-known mesophotic areas) are little impacted
by bleaching.  If the top of a reef is “dead” is that enough to pronounce
the entire reef dead?
It could be that any announcement that puts reefs in the news is good
because it raises awareness, but there is a reason that most conservation
organizations choose positive rather than gloomy imagery and messages when
raising awareness (and $$).  Negative stories shut people down, and the
danger of crying wolf further threatens to deafen the public’s ears..   I’d
vote for not declaring reefs dead, but if we do, let’s at least agree on an
objective definition.

Hal Lescinsky, Otterbein University

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