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

Peter Sale sale at uwindsor.ca
Tue Oct 31 15:16:54 EDT 2017

Hi Dennis,
As usual, your comments impress me.
If anything, your insertion of a geological perspective has strengthened my argument for truly interdisciplinary research, while also adding to the complexity which is a reef.  And I loved your closing comment that quietly mentioned that a reef is a four-dimensional object.

To answer the questions you were raising, my concern was really in the uncanny tendency of ecologists to not look too far from the end of our noses, and continue along with overly simple ecological models of things we describe as coral reefs.  To model the transition of a reefscape from a strongly coral-dominated landscape to a mainly algae-dominated one (or back again) as an interaction involving three players – unitary coral, algae and herbivore – is way too simple, and we keep publishing papers showing different examples of how it is too simple, but we don’t bother to adjust our baseline model as a result.  I was imploring my fellow ecologists to work towards more sophisticated, and more accurate models of reality (while also posing the question – do we humans have the intellectual capacity to understand a complex system such as a reef.  My guess is that if we are to become able to steer our world through the coming decades so that it remains in a quasi-Holocene state suitable for our civilization to prosper in, we are going to need (along with a lot of other things) much more robust ecological understanding than we now possess.  And I worry because I do not see evidence – at least in the coral reef literature – that we are making the needed progress.

By adding your geological perspective, you have hinted that some attributes of reefs don’t require ecologically ‘glorious’ coral-dominated structures, but that other attributes definitely do.  It may be that, down the road, we will realize that we can ‘manage for’ less ‘glorious’ reefs that still provide some ecosystem services, but that managing for coral-dominated systems won’t be possible.  (This hints at the argument in the Nature paper by Terry Hughes et al last summer – Coral reefs in the Anthropocene, Nature 546, p82 – that we can no longer expect to manage for reefs similar in their coral dominance to those of the mid-20th century, and must manage for something achieveable.)  I’m suggesting that if we do not do some more powerful ecology we will never be in a position to know a) what is possible in this changed world, or b) how to actually get from here to there.

There is a challenge here for ecologists – how much better could our scientific understanding become – and also a call to action.  Because if the scientists cannot articulate how the system works more precisely than we do at present, what hope do the educators/communicators, the managers, and the policy makers have of creating the will and then building better planetary management?  And I actually believe we ecologists can do far better than we are doing!

Peter Sale

From: Dennis Hubbard [mailto:dennis.hubbard at oberlin.edu]
Sent: Tuesday, October 31, 2017 2:18 PM
To: angela dikou <angeladikou at hotmail.com>
Cc: Peter Sale <sale at uwindsor.ca>; coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
Subject: Re: [Coral-List] Are reef ecologists capable of building the complex science needed?

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 "better".
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<mailto:angeladikou at hotmail.com>> wrote:
 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<mailto:coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov> <coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml..noaa.gov<http://noaa.gov>> on behalf of Peter Sale <sale at uwindsor.ca<mailto:sale at uwindsor.ca>>
Sent: Monday, October 30, 2017 3:48 AM
To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov<mailto:coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>
Subject: [Coral-List] Are reef ecologists capable of building the complex science needed?

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<mailto:sale at uwindsor.ca>

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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"

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