[Coral-List] Fwd: What's killing the corals

Douglas Fenner douglasfennertassi at gmail.com
Thu Oct 5 15:16:41 EDT 2017

Gene and coral-list,

This is very long, so don’t read it if you don’t want to.  Here’s an
abstract:  coral reef monitoring provides vital data on a sick patient,
like taking a patient’s vital signs.  It also has provided lots of
information about what is causing coral reefs to decline, just as observing
patient symptoms tells a lot about what is causing their illness.  Further,
scientists have for quite some time been engaging vigorously in the study
of the causes of reef decline, and managers around the world have been
trying to stop decline, but they are greatly underfunded and often must
battle special interests who don’t want to stop damaging reefs, including
those who say that humans don’t cause global warming and we shouldn’t
reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Such resistance is likely to do vastly
more to doom reefs than the paltry sums spent on monitoring.  This post is
meant as a reality check.  Many references are provided to document that
monitoring helps understand causes, and that scientists have been concerned
about causes of decline for some time.

     I have some sympathy for your view that we should go beyond
monitoring.  I’m one of the people that often says that we shouldn’t just
be re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and that having the best
documented death of a coral reef ecosystem isn’t satisfactory.  When I
started studying coral reefs over three decades ago, most of the papers
published were curiosity-driven.  Just studying the reefs to discover what
was there and how it all worked together.  That included lots of reef
geology.  But with the gathering storm clouds of reef decline, there has
been a huge shift over the decades, and now it seems like few papers are
just curiosity-driven, most research (and funding) is about the rapid
decline in reefs, trying to figure out what caused the declines, and what
to do about it.

      No one seems to have responded to your comments dismissing
monitoring.  I think doing so misses an opportunity to discuss the value of
monitoring.  Perhaps no one responded because everyone agrees with you, but
I doubt that.

       Do you or anyone else have an analysis of how much money is spent
around the world on coral reef monitoring compared to other kinds of coral
reef research?  You seem to think that monitoring consumes much or most of
the money spent on reefs.  Judging from the very large number of papers
published on reef research other than monitoring, and the small proportion
of papers and reports based on monitoring, it looks to me like monitoring
gets a small slice of the whole funding pie, but I’d be interested if you
or anyone else has data.

      My comment about not doing monitoring is like blacking out your
windshield on your car can cause crashes, was an analogy, but you seem to
have taken it literally, saying we can see what the reefs are doing by
looking out our window.  Can you see reefs out your office window?  I can’t
out my office window.  Can you see reefs out your car window?  I doubt it,
the reefs in Florida are too far offshore, aren’t they?  I can see a little
bit of the reefs of American Samoa out my car window at low tide, but I
can’t tell if the coral is alive or dead.  They are both brown, the dead
colonies are brown from algae.  If they are newly dead, they are white, but
they are also white if they are alive but bleached.  I have to get out of
my car and walk on the reef flat or go snorkeling, or go diving to see how
the reefs are doing.  And I can only look at a tiny amount of area, so I
try to look at different places, and I can’t watch the reef all the time so
I try to check periodically.  I often take quantitative data, but not
always.  Some people call that “monitoring.”  But it doesn’t tell me what’s
happening in Florida, I depend on people there to go out and collect that
data, I don’t presume that reefs in Florida do the same thing as in
American Samoa (in fact they haven’t), do you presume that reefs all around
the world do the same thing as the one coral you photographed?  Only
monitoring around the world can find that out.

      You contend that since we now have moved beyond monitoring (to
ignorance about what is actually happening to the world’s reefs?) to doing
research to find out what is damaging reefs, but that implies that
monitoring and research are two different, easily separable activities.  A
brief, casual, superficial look at the literature will indicate that most
publications and reports of the results of monitoring go out of their way
to try to figure out what is causing changes in the reefs, in some cases
monitoring and a little additional information can point to the cause, such
as the mass coral bleaching around the world in 1998 that killed about 16
percent of the world’s coral, that was caused by high water temperatures
caused by a super strong El Nino on top of gradual global warming.  In
other cases it has not been so obvious, such as the decline of Pacific
reefs (Bruno & Selig, 2007).  But without monitoring of reefs, we wouldn’t
even know they had declined.  Your photos of the same coral over many years
illustrates the decline of a coral in Florida, but without data from a much
larger area of Florida reefs, we wouldn’t know that the decline was wider
than just your one coral.  Without monitoring, we wouldn’t know whether
Florida’s corals as a whole had declined, or the whole Caribbean, the whole
Pacific, or the whole Indian Ocean.  An in fact, not all areas have
declined (not the South Pacific), and not all equally (as in the Caribbean:
Jackson GCRMN report; the Indian Ocean has reefs that have recovered from
the 1998 mortality, and others that haven’t) and not evenly over time (some
Caribbean reefs have declined steadily, others declined rapidly at first
then slower later on; Indian Ocean reefs were initially relatively steady
then dropped precipitously in 1998, only to recover part way over the
following years, then stop recovering.)  Is this unimportant?  Can you see
that happening all over the world by looking out your window in Florida,
and if so why didn’t you publish your findings?  Can you predict what is
going to happen in each area?  Do you have a crystal ball?  As far as I
know, it IS indeed important, and no one person can predict what is going
to happen each year in the future, at each location.  It is an empirical
question, if we want to know, then people have to get out into the water
all over the world, each year, to find out.  It’s called “monitoring.”

      I’ll list below a small fraction of the published literature based on
monitoring data.  If you read them, I think you’ll find that all or almost
all literature based on monitoring provides information about the causes.
It is hardly a topic that monitoring people have not contributed to.
Contributed information in many cases that can’t be obtained any other way.

Cheers, Doug

Selected References

Brown, B.E.  1987.  Worldwide death of corals: Natural cyclic events or
man-made pollution?  Mar. Pollut. Bull., 18, 9–13.

Richmond, R.H.  1993.  Coral reefs: Present problems and future concerns
resulting from anthropogenic disturbance. Am. Zool., 33, 524–536.

Grigg, R.W. 1994.  Effects of sewage discharge, fishing pressure, and
habitat complexity on coral ecosystems and reef fishes in Hawaii. Mar.
Ecol. Prog. Ser., 103, 25–34.

Hughes, T.P. 1994. Catastrophes, phase shifts, and large-scale degradation
of a Caribbean coral reef.  Science, 265, 1547–1551.

Sebins, K. 1994.  Biodiversity of coral reefs: What we are losing and why?
Am. Zool., 34, 115–133.

Hodgson, G. 1999.  A global assessment of human effects on coral reefs.
Mar. Pollut. Bull., 38, 345–355.

Gardner, T.A.; Côté, I.M.; Gill, J.A.; Grant, A.; Watkinson, A.R. 2003.
Long-term region-wide declines in Caribbean corals. Science, 301, 958–960.

Pandolfi, J.M.; Bradbury, R.H.; Sala, E.; Hughes, T.P.; Bjorndal, K.A.;
Cooke, R.G.; McArdle, D.; McClenchan, L.; Newman, M.J.H.; Paredes, G.; et
al. 2003.  Global trajectories of the long-term decline of coral reef
ecosystems. Science, 301, 955–957.

Bruno, J.F.; Selig, E.R. 2007.  Regional decline of coral cover in the
Indo-Pacific: Timing, extent, and subregional comparisons. PLoS One, 2,

Wilkinson, C.  2008.  Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008.  Global
Coral Reef Monitoring Network.  298 pp.

Schutte, V.G.W., Selig, E.R., Bruno, J.F.  2010.  Regional spatio-temporal
trends in Caribbean coral reef benthic communities.  Marine Ecology
Progress Series 402: 11-122.

Vroom, P. S. (2010). “Coral dominance: a dangerous ecosystem misnomer?”
Journal of Marine Biology, 2011, 164127.

Ateweberhan M., T.R. McClanahan, N.A.J. Graham and C.R.C., Sheppard. 2011.
Episodic heterogeneous decline and recovery of coral cover in the Indian
Ocean. Coral Reefs, 30: 739–752.

Williams, I., Richards, B. M., Sandin, S. A., Baum, J. K., Schroeder, R.
E., Nadon, M. O., Zgliczynski, B., Craig, P., McIlwain, J. L., & Brainard,
R. E. (2011). Differences in reef fish assemblages between populated and
remote reefs spanning multiple archipelagos across the Central and West
Pacific. *Journal of Marine Biology*, *2011*, 1–14.

Nadon, M. C., Baum, J. K., Williams, I. D., McPherson, J. M., Zglicynski,
B. J., Richards, B. L., Schroeder, R. E., & Brainard, R. E. (2012).
Re-creating missing population baselines for Pacific Reef Sharks.
Conservation. Biology, 26, 493–503.

Pinca, S., Kronen, M., Magron, F., McArdle, B., Vigliola, L., Kulbicki, M.,
& Andréfoët, S. (2012). Relative importance of habitat and fishing in
influencing reef fish communities across seventeen Pacific Island countries
and territories. Fish and Fisheries, 13, 361-379.

Fenner, D. 2012.  Challenges for managing fisheries on diverse coral
reefs.  Diversity 4(1): 105-160.

Jackson, J., Donovan, M., Camer, K., Lam, V. (Eds.)  2014.  Status and
trends of Caribbean coral reefs: 1970-2012.

Australian Institute of Marine Science. (2017). Long-term reef monitoring
program – Annual summary report on coral reef condition for 2016/17..

On Sat, Jul 8, 2017 at 7:33 AM, Eugene Shinn <eugeneshinn at mail.usf.edu>

> --
> Thanks Douglas, I realize that only those on cable TV in the US would
> have seen the commercial.  I am also quite sure most coral researchers
> do not even watch any TV, especially cable TV.  You are correct. I was
> photographing and documenting the demise of Florida's coral reefs before
> most of todays active reef workers were born. I also recall all those
> meeting where the few reef biologists that existed then constantly
> argued over which monitoring method was the best to determine reef
> health. The arguments seemed endless. I agreen with Doug, All one had to
> do was roll down the windows and see that corals were dying. It's so
> good now to see we are finally getting past monitoring and trying to
> learn the causes and try to do something about the
> problem. Unfortunately now there is few left to monitor. We can only
> hope the transplanting of the genetically most resistant corals will help..
> Steve Mussman asks, "How do you account for the fact that for all these
> years the clear warnings and suggested countermeasures of so many
> dedicated coral scientists have been met with such callous disregard?" I
> asked that question many times over the years. You first might ask all
> those people who were being paid to protect the reefs. The older
> researchers out there  willremember when diving and doing any research
> on coral reefs was considered too enjoyable to be taken seriously. I
> knew many university researchers who wrote  proposals to government
> agencies but were never funded. Fish were different. We don't eat
> corals.  I was not in a position to write proposals for coral research.
> My first two published papers were unfunded hobby projects. One involved
> transplanting /A. cervicornis/ to see why it did not grow near shore. A
> severe cold front answered the question. But that was before the late
> 1970s when not even hurricanes killed coral. Its all way more
> complicated now. We should get past the monitoring and do more
> experimental work. Gene
> No Rocks, No Water, No Ecosystem (EAS)
> ------------------------------------ -----------------------------------
> E. A. Shinn, Courtesy Professor
> University of South Florida
> College of Marine Science Room 221A
> 140 Seventh Avenue South
> St. Petersburg, FL 33701
> <eugeneshinn at mail.usf.edu>
> Tel 727 553-1158
> ---------------------------------- -----------------------------------
> _______________________________________________
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Douglas Fenner
Contractor for NOAA NMFS Protected Species, and consultant
PO Box 7390
Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799  USA

phone 1 684 622-7084 <(684)%20622-7084>

New online open-access field guide to 300 coral species in Chagos, Indian


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