[Coral-List] Are reef ecologists capable of building the complex science needed

Peter Sale sale at uwindsor.ca
Thu Nov 2 17:54:41 EDT 2017

Hi Charles,
Re coral reef decline, your post centered on the standard perspective - we know all the science we need, let's just get on with the job.  In your words, "I suggest though, with all respect, that reef complexity does not matter in the least.   Reefs are declining whether they are complex or simple, whatever we have done about it."

I have to differ.  While the standard 'solutions' to reef decline - protect them from overfishing, pollution, siltation, other local indignities, while also working to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible - are undoubtedly a) based on science, and b) definitely worth doing, they will almost certainly prove to be inadequate to fully 'repair' reefs because reefs are complex systems.  Complex systems behave chaotically.  They do unexpected things.

We know that some of the reefs seriously degraded in 1998 recovered and that some others did not.  We know that some reefs that have not recovered were replaced by lush stands of foliose algae - classic phase shift - while others remained relatively algae-free.  We cannot explain why each reef followed the trajectory it did, and we certainly cannot yet predict which reef about to be bleached will respond in which way.  The fact is that our simple models (which justify use of the standard solutions) do not take account of the myriad feedbacks, positive and negative, and the myriad interactions among reef species.  That is my concern.

My original post, and the fuller account on my blog http://wp.me/p5UInC-ED was not meant to imply we ecologists cannot yet offer informed advice to managers - the standard solutions are useful and often provide benefits.  I was arguing that we are a) underestimating the complexity of the systems that comprise the natural world, b) failing to build more robust models, despite routinely discovering new complexity in the experimentation and modeling we do.  And I was suggesting we may not even have the necessary neural equipment to understand the workings of complex systems, and at minimum, we should be striving to do a better (more comprehensive) job of identifying the nature of that complexity.

By all means, let's push for full implementation of the standard solutions, plus effort in direct reef restoration, but let's also recognize we have a big task in science to pursue - the refinement of our models to account for as much as possible of the complexity that our ecosystems possess.  We will need such deeper understanding if we are to have any hope of navigating the challenging world of the Anthropocene.


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