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

Dennis Hubbard dennis.hubbard at oberlin.edu
Tue Oct 31 14:17:56 EDT 2017

Hi Angela, Peter et al.

I may be misinterpreting Peter's challenge, but my sense is that we need to
think about either the "questions" or the "bottom line", depending on our
goals. I will confine my example to possibles impacts of changes in
community structure and how we might address these depending on our
disciplines - in this case ecologists vs geologists and "scientists" versus
"managers". In both instances, we should remember that the truth is in the
intersection of either pair, so it's not a matter of who is "right" or

Let's start with "reef decline". For too many years, we argued over the
obvious (we were losing corals) and focusing on things like "at what
statistical level do you want to describe decline?" This still continues to
some extent as we conflate "reefs" with "corals" because the latter is the
major contributor of carbonate to reef building today. A number of
thoughtful folks have argued (both correctly and effectively) that reef
building includes a balance between carbonate substrate production
(primarily by coralgal species) and destruction (by a mix of bioeroding
grazers and infauna). As someone who has looked at reefs as physical
structures, I also consider the fate of that bioeroded material (and
physically disrupted and transported substrate) as equally important. We
have been trying to model each of these in a changing tropical world - and
the factor that is most difficult to quantify is export. However, because
over half of the biologically created substrate is ground into sediment,
it's fate is critical the the eventual budget of reef building (not to
mention the biophysical effects of sediment on coral ecology).

So, we come to, as the Late Bob Ginsburg always reminded us, "so, Angela
and Peter, what is your question?" If it is about corals as proxies for
"reef decline", then counting corals is the proper metric. If, however, it
is about the impact of grazing fish on reef building or spatial
heterogeneity on mobile-community structure, then we need to bring in both
the fish on one side of the equation and declining fisheries on the other.
Fewer corals will lead to less structural complexity (and, conversely, less
structural complexity will negatively impact coral recruitment - and
recruitment/longevity of more mobile species). Fewer grazing fish will
reduce bioerosion and perhaps preserve some small amount of structural
complexity. And, whatever the balance, the fate of detrital material will
strongly contribute to the ability of the reef to build vertically.

How important is the latter? If we consider accretion rates based on reef
cores - reefs in deeper water (10 - >30m) built at rates no different than
their counterparts in shallower water throughout the Holocene. Because
coral cover and growth rates are typically much higher in shallower water,
this seems odd and suggests that significant amounts of carbonate are moved
around.... primarily downslope. And.... if there is no measurable
correlation between vertical reef building and either coral type (massive
vs branching) or water depth, then we are left with the unavoidable
conclusion that sediment redistribution is at least as important as
carbonate production and bioerosion - and export may be even more important
with respect to reef building (and structural complexity). of biophysical
processes (acidification, warming, nutrient loading, etc.) on the abundance
of corals, then we need to be counting corals and the monitoring
processes/impacting phenomena - our main approach to date. If, however, we
are interested in carbonate cycling within reefs, then we need to be
broadening this to include bioerosion and sediment behavior. If we are more
interested in actual reef building (and, by extension, the ability of reef
islands to keep pace with accelerating sea-level rise), then the fate of
sediment is perhaps the main controlling factor - especially as corals
decline (lower initial production) and fish populations decline (lower
bioerosion) while storminess increases (greater redistribution and export).

>From a management perspective, I think I am seeing more and more folks
questioning whether our management/monitoring schemes are just documenting
the obvious (corals are on the decline and we do not have the societal will
required to change that fact). That would seem to leave us with questions
about structural complexity (and its back-and-forth interaction with biotic
diversity - remember that a fish will hide in a cinder block just a happily
as in a similar cryptic space in a biophysical structure), and the ability
of reefs to track rising sea level. Unfortunately, we probably can't do
much more about sea level than we can about the myriad changes in benthic
structure and communities.

So, my overly simplistic answer to Peter's question is that ecologists will
probably never be able able to understand the full picture until they start
to think about the four-dimensional nature of the substrate upon which
ecology is staged (3-D visual plus time)......., in all fairness, any more
than geologists/paleoecologists will be able to tie the past to the present
until we recognize that the incredible time-averaged reef record was built
a second at a time and that the processss and time scales we are more
comfortable with (1000s of years) are amalgams and not measurements of the
actual processes involved.



On Mon, Oct 30, 2017 at 12:19 PM, angela dikou <angeladikou at hotmail.com>

>  Dear Peter,
> thank you very much for keeping us updated about recent contributions to
> the coral reef ecology field and for keeping us needed for recommendations
> and proposals to turn around and triumph the coral reef crisis. Please
> allow me to add a few recommendations for the ISRS leadership, for which
> available NOAA Coral Reef International Projects funding may be utilized
> for a start:
> 1.Develop a long-term heterarchy of information flow that allows for the
> storage and exchange among policy, management, and reef users with thematic
> units on the main stressors on reefs and (segmented) world wide coverage;
> allow common appreciation of common impacts and amass cornucopia of
> available solutions, cornucopia of incentives structures, implementation
> options; deadlines, recoiled budgets, and deliverables.
> 2.Organise organic matrices (i.e. decisive networks of randomly selected,
> willing and capable coral reef stakeholders to discuss and decide on
> ecological, social, technology, and economic aspects) at various spatial
> scales, with specific deadlines, recoiled budgets, and deliverables
> (strategies-programes-projects).
> 3.Institutionalize the raise of standards of performance for current and
> future coral reef protected areas; reward those who reach them and replace
> those who are not willing to reach them; capitalize on positive
> externalities..
> 4.Re-examine and re-align priorities about reef stressors that scientists
> deliver to managers and policy makers through (i)elaboration/integration of
> the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network database with the Coral Trait
> Database, (ii)translation of the structural indicators of (i) into
> functional indicators of reef state, that can further and readily be
> utilized for ecosystem services/goods assessment and economic valuation.
> 5.Promote transdisciplinary research topics and teams at all levels of the
> research endeavor, from summer research projects to multinational
> collaborations.
> Exemplary breakthroughers receive the worthy tangible and intagible
> benefits from the ISRS, policy and the media. By the way, congratulations
> to Dr Gill who contributed to the sizeable pool of evidence of the
> species-specific stressors’ interactions on reef corals (albeit mainly on
> species of Acropora and Porites genera) and to the incipient pool of
> evidence of how coral reefs may change in the future.
> It is my humble opinion that what may be needed are not positive feedback
> loops but negative (stabilizing) feedback loop for the desired reef state..
> It can be tested, right?
> Thank you for spreading.
> Angela Dikou
> ________________________________
> From: coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov <coral-list-bounces at coral.
> aoml..noaa.gov> on behalf of Peter Sale <sale at uwindsor.ca>
> Sent: Monday, October 30, 2017 3:48 AM
> To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> Subject: [Coral-List] Are reef ecologists capable of building the complex
> science needed?
> Listers,
> I've been silent for a couple of months, growing increasingly concerned
> that humanity is heading for a big failure on climate change.  I've watched
> US politics (it's just across the border and hard to avoid) suck up all the
> oxygen in the media, and with Paris climate agreement now 'old news', the
> sense that we are making real progress on this front is fading.  For coral
> reefs, the second major bleaching of GBR in less than a year provides a
> sorry background to Australia's own political battle over coal, while among
> the scientists we seem to mostly be arguing about whether reef restoration
> is worth doing, whether saving 50 reefs is a seriously self-limiting step
> or a rational approach to a crisis, and even over who first said reefs were
> in trouble.  Meanwhile our science muddles on.
> And so I have written down some thoughts on my blog, that may impress
> some, and will definitely annoy some others.  It's at
> http://www.petersalebooks.com/?p=2519
> I fear that we are continuing to adopt a business-as-usual approach to
> doing our science, and that, at least for ecology, business-as-usual is
> simply not going to be good enough.  I believe that rising above
> business-as-usual requires a real commitment to doing science well, and
> that many of us have either never experienced, or have forgotten how to
> show that commitment.  I also believe that, though we may well be excellent
> examples of what evolution can achieve, evolution has not equipped us well
> to do the kind of multifactorial, multidimensional, multiscale evaluations
> that are necessary when seeking to understand complex ecosystems like
> reefs.  And I make reference to three very different recent papers in Coral
> Reefs, each of which has its merits, to reveal the immense complexity
> contained in those simple - sometimes central - interactions between corals
> and turf and foliose algae that might help us understand why many reefs
> degrade, why degraded reefs sometimes recover, a
>  nd why we are surrounded by reefs that have only 50% of the living coral
> they held 40 or so years ago.  Without that fuller understanding, we are in
> no position to undertake the task of rebuilding reef resilience, or
> sustaining coral systems through what is surely going to be for them a very
> difficult couple of decades.
> I'll be interested in your insights.
> Peter Sale
> University of Windsor
> sale at uwindsor.ca
> _______________________________________________
> Coral-List mailing list
> Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list
> Coral-List Info Page<http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-
> list>
> coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> Coral-List is funded by NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program and NOAA's
> Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, and therefore adopts
> and is guided by ...
> _______________________________________________
> Coral-List mailing list
> Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list

Dennis Hubbard
Chair, Dept of Geology-Oberlin College Oberlin OH 44074
(440) 775-8346

* "When you get on the wrong train.... every stop is the wrong stop"*
 Benjamin Stein: "*Ludes, A Ballad of the Drug and the Dream*"

More information about the Coral-List mailing list