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

Douglas Fenner douglasfennertassi at gmail.com
Fri Mar 17 16:19:16 EDT 2017

    Excellent post!  I cringe every time someone says that "the reef is
dead."  It is a very common expression.  And it leads to significant
logical difficulties when someone says "the reef just died" one year and
then sometime later says "the reef just died" again.  Unless reefs are the
only living things proven to be able to reincarnate themselves.
     I tried to make the point earlier that our use of the term "reef" or
"coral reef" is not specific enough.  There is a geological structure that
was never alive in the first place, made of calcium carbonate.  Like a
mountain or a canyon, a rock structure that is not alive.  The second is
the ecosystem, made of many living things, corals being one of the most
iconic.  Those living things can die, while the geological structure, the
rocks, can't.  We speak of a forest, or grasslands, that are on top of
mountains, or plains, we don't use one word for both.  If you say the
mountain is now dead, it makes no sense.  It always was dead, and it didn't
just die now, never was alive.  A forest is a living ecosystem, so it is
capable of dying.  So I argued that we need two separate expressions,
something like "coral reef ecosystem" and "reef geological structure."
 (it's not important exactly what the words are, what is important that
they distinguish the two things clearly.  And yes, we realize that they are
inextricably woven together and dependent on each other.  But we
distinguish a person sitting on a chair from the chair, we don't say the
chair just died.)  But I clearly didn't convince many people.  You have
said it better, I hope people now understand the problem.
     I completely agree that a "coral reef ecosystem" is a wonderfully
complex ecosystem.  Instead of saying "the reef is now dead" we need to say
something like "X% of the corals are now dead on this reef."  And if I
remember Terry was quoted as saying that at one point in the articles.
     Our science isn't bad, but I think we need to lift our game in the way
we talk about what's happening to our reefs, and be more specific and
technically correct in what we say.  Why do we still insist on being so
sloppy and lazy about our language to refer to "reefs" and to "reefs
dying"??  Do we have to drop all scientific accuracy talking to the press
and each other?  We're fully capable of doing much better.  Our science is
way, way ahead of the way we talk, we need to catch up.
     Anyhow, thanks for writing these things in a very clear way, and a
different way than I wrote about them, Hal!  I couldn't agree more.
     Cheers,  Doug

On Thu, Mar 16, 2017 at 3:45 AM, Lescinsky, Halard <hlescinsky at otterbein.edu
> wrote:

> 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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Douglas Fenner
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