[Coral-List] We must change course if we are to save the worlds’ reefs - A follow up to Peter Sale and Charles Sheppard

Avigdor Abelson avigdor at tauex.tau.ac.il
Fri Nov 10 11:20:40 EST 2017

Dear Peter and Charles,
Continuing your thread and trying to bridge the gap between your views (“reef complexity does or doesn’t matter”); I think you are each describing a “different part of the elephant”, as in the Buddhist story; that is, I believe you each refer to a different approach to saving the reefs.
Considering the entire range of actions necessary to countermeasure the present and future reef declines, we can divide them into three major categories (approaches):
1. Protection and stress alleviation (e.g. overfishing, sewage, and coastal development)
2. Coral-reef restoration (expanding restoration tools beyond ‘reef gardening’)
3. Reef community adaptation (developing approaches such as “assisted evolution” and adaptation networks; see Webster et al. 2016, TREE).
Of the three categories, ‘protection and stressor alleviation’ requires no further research, because we already know how to execute them. These actions should be urgently implemented, or as Jackson and Johnson wrote: “We need to move immediately beyond listings of species as threatened and research about climate change and take rigorous action against the local and global stresses killing corals” (“We Can Save the Caribbean’s Coral Reefs”; NYTimes, Sept. 18, 2014).
The other two action categories (i.e. reef restoration and development of reef community adaptation) do require further and major research in order to better understand the reef complexity, adaptation variability within and among species and at different sites, and this also demands our creativity.
Charles argues that “It is a matter for sociology, psychology and politics (and of course money and vested interests)”, and asks “where are the journalists whose job it is to translate our science to the popular media?” I agree with him about the “ex-science needs”, but I also consider that the journalists receive misleading messages from us, the coral-reef scientific community, the results of which are assertions like: “The only sure way to preserve the world's coral reefs will be to take drastic action to reverse global warming” (D. Normile Science March 15, 2017).
This is an incorrect message! It is wrong because it is scientifically inaccurate in many locations. If you haven’t watched Jeremy Jackson’s excellent talk (in which he shows that climate change is not the main problem in the Caribbean, and how we can save them): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgfNE9IAjww&t=2886s   - it is highly worth watching!
 Focusing on climate change is also a misstep in practice!  If “drastic action to reverse global warming” is the only way to save the reefs, local decision-makers don’t have to worry about protection and stress removal.  I have been working for several years now in different geographical reef locations, many of which have been destroyed by destructive-fishing, overfishing, coastal development, and sewage. This doesn’t prevent many of the local leaders in these locations from blaming climate change for the miserable state of their reefs, and they get strong reinforcement from the coral reef scientific community.
 We have to bear in mind that while we are focusing on climate change, over five million coral-reef fishermen are exhaustively extracting the reefs on a daily basis, and too often poisoning and ruining the reefs through destructive fishing practices. Add to this the endless releases of fertilizers, pesticides, and untreated sewage from land-based sources, and the reefs are subjected to slow, hard-to-recognize degradation processes – an expanding phenomenon that, despite its wide geographical range, is not attractive enough for media splashes.
 If we seek a panacea for the world reefs, I think, we first have to change course and exit the flawed path of ‘focusing on climate change’. Shouting out about climate change is important, as it may help in promoting public awareness and pushing decision-makers into action. It is also rewarding for scientific careers – it helps to push papers into high impact factor journals and is effective in creating ‘media splashes’ (interesting article on ‘media splash’ “Academics seek a big splash” NYT 2015; https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/01/business/beyond-publish-or-perish-scientific-papers-look-to-make-splash.html).
 However, climate change mitigation, even if appropriately applied (which is very unlikely considering the proliferation of ‘post-truth regimes’ around the world), is not projected to help the reefs, at least not in the coming decades.  Therefore, we should treat climate change as a new reality within which we target our efforts of developing reef adaptation (Category 3), in addition to protection and stressor alleviation (Category 1), and the restoration of those reefs whose state is beyond natural recovery (Category 2).
 Time is running out and not in the reefs’ favor – It is time to make a change by reducing the impact of land-based stressors. It is time to build alternative livelihoods for local fishermen and turn “paper reserves” (too many of them!) into real, strictly enforced reserves. It is time to act locally through an enhanced sharing of what we already know with the relevant local stakeholders in as many as possible reef locations. It is the time to develop effective restoration and adaptation tools, rather than counting on climate change and reef gardening to save the reefs. It is time we should try to lead journalists to affect public awareness and local decision-makers, rather than us being led by what the media is expecting for big scoops.
Best wishes ~Avigdor

On 2 Nov 2017, at 11:25, Sheppard, Charles <Charles.Sheppard at warwick.ac.uk<mailto:Charles.Sheppard at warwick.ac.uk>> wrote:

Dear Peter and others
I read recently that CO2 levels reached 403.3 ppm, a level not seen since, Noah, Julius Caesar,  Gengis Khan, or whatever starting point that newspaper drew out of the air.

I read at the same time Peter Sale’s remarks about the ecological story being much more complicated than we thought.  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.

Why does their complexity not matter?  Partly because we DO know enough, right now, to know what the problems are.  Even if the ecosystem were quite simple it would still be too complicated for most of our lawmakers – who so often ignore what they don’t understand.  And things are not immediately desperate enough for us in the developed world to force action, even if they did understand it.  It IS desperate for millions of people, but as one very senior British lawmaker said to me once (unguardedly, after much liquid lubrication) ‘Well, they are a long way southeast of Dover’.  He of course was interested firstly in HIS electorate.  Perhaps his comment should not surprise us.

I would maintain that although it is actually an extremely complex issue in its 4-D detail, it is VERY simple in its main point: CO2 rise, extraction and pollution rise = coral reef decline.

My point is, I don’t think it is a matter for science any more.  Yes, let us do all those research lines (multi-disciplinary, not myopic).  We know only a fraction about the ecology, but we understand more than enough to know what the consequences are of the sum of human activity.  It is a matter for sociology, psychology and politics (and of course money and vested interests).  Further unravelling of the detail (and I am all for that) is unlikely to change the trend.

Ever increasingly sophisticated ecological research (taking us further and further from lawmakers understanding), does not help answer: ‘How can we be useful given that those who rule us don’t particularly care?’

Having said that, my second point is a question: where are the journalists whose job it is to translate our science to the popular media?  We have all heard the cry: ‘you scientists do not or cannot explain it properly’.  This should be answered by ‘well no, we are busy full time trying to do the science in the first place’.  Translation of science to the public is a different skill.  People don’t ask journalists to do the original science, so why could it or should it work the other way round?    I have seen countless examples of the results of scientists miserably extolling their important news, and I fear that most readers do not get past the first few sentences.  And even if we do manage a pithy, gripping piece, a football or teen pop star misbehaving will trump our headlines any day.

It is exasperating to us to see such lack of care and action about something we think (=know) is so important.  But I suggest that a fix, if only to that problem, lies not with the complex research that a complex system needs, but will come (if it does) from a completely different direction.  We simply cannot do it, and proof of that is that while we have increased hugely in numbers of scientists and in our output, the reefs have continued to decline.  Why?  Is it really because we don’t do enough complex science to understand reefs?

Best wishes
Charles Sheppard

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