[Coral-List] The GBR is in trouble, but not dead

Hughes, Terry terry.hughes at jcu.edu.au
Sat Mar 18 09:35:54 EDT 2017

Dear Hal,

I agree with you entirely about the inaccuracy of declaring reefs "dead". Please allow me to set the record straight about the news coverage of our recent paper in Nature, and the "obituary" of the Great Barrier Reef....

Firstly, our paper in Nature last week was highlighted by over 1,000 media stories. As far as I'm aware, only one - The New York Times - attributed a quote to me, where I'm supposed to have said that “literally two-thirds of the reefs were dying and are now dead”. I did not make this statement. 

The NYT found a map that I had published online, showing a north-south gradient in post-bleaching mortality along the Great Barrier Reef, and they asked me to explain it for them. What I actually said is contained in the following two email, sent an hour apart, reproduced here in full:

From: Hughes, Terry 
Sent: Wednesday, 15 March 2017 5:50 AM
To: xxxxxx at nytimes.com>

Hi xxxxx,

I published that map here http://theconversation.com/how-much-coral-has-died-in-the-great-barrier-reefs-worst-bleaching-event-69494

The Nature paper doesn't include this information.

There's a serious mistake - the numbers are median % of corals, not reefs. (reefs don't die, they show a reduction in coral cover). The range is one quartile above and below the median. So 50% of reefs (2 quartile) in each region lost the stated range of corals. 

This is the drop in coral cover measured underwater between March and November 2016.

Cheers, Terry

From: Hughes, Terry 
Sent: Wednesday, 15 March 2017 6:45 AM
To: xxxxxxx at nytimes.com>
Subject: Re: NYT - Graphic accuracy check

Yes, it definitely should be "found that 67 percent of the coral colonies had died in a long stretch north of Port Douglas". Not reefs.

So, Coral-Listers can come to their own conclusion as to whether I ever stated that 67% of REEFS have died, or whether I said 67% of colonies.

Secondly, Hal has raised the issue of the "obituary of the Great Barrier Reef", which appeared in the media last October. Perhaps more than anyone else, I protested at the time against the concept of writing off the GBR. For example, the Huffington Post wrote the following (which I have obviously abbreviated):

"Great Barrier Reef Obituary Goes Viral, To The Horror Of Scientists" (Chris D'Angelo, October 14)

..........Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, said in an email to HuffPost that he was “not impressed by the [article’s] message that we should give up on the [Great Barrier Reef], or that it is already dead.”

“We can and must save the Great Barrier Reef ― it supports 70,000 jobs in reef tourism,” he said. “Large sections of it (the southern half) escaped from the 2016 bleaching, and are in reasonable shape. The message should be that it isn’t too late for Australia to lift its game and better protect the GBR, not we should all give up because the GBR is supposedly dead.”

Finally Hal, I call your attention to a paper my colleagues and I wrote recently in Nature Climate Change, entitled "Securing the future of the Great Barrier Reef" http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v5/n6/full/nclimate2604.html and to my TED talk, "Yes, we can save the world's coral reefs" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5LshSZn5RA

So, in summary, I am not ready to write off coral reefs - far from it. I have to say I find the "50 reef" concept morally repugnant - who among us has the right to tell hundreds of millions of people that their particular reefs aren’t important enough to be among the tiny minority of reefs that will be "saved" by dubious promises of restoration? We should try to save all reefs by dealing with climate change.

Cheers, Terry

-----Original Message-----
From: coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov [mailto:coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov] On Behalf Of Lescinsky, Halard
Sent: Friday, 17 March 2017 12:46 AM
To: Coral -List <coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>
Subject: [Coral-List] The GBR has died (again).

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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