[Coral-List] effect of sunscreen on corals

Mike Jankulak - NOAA Affiliate mike.jankulak at noaa.gov
Sat Feb 9 13:46:20 UTC 2019

Listers, this morning there was another blank post from Mike Risk, the
original of which I now forward to you in full, unedited. This one had
different headers from the others so I'd hoped the software would be kinder
to it, but it seems I hoped in vain. The very weird thing is that Mike's
first post on Tuesday came through without problem so whatever is
triggering this, it is intermittent.

Enough from Mike J+, here now I bring you Mike R.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: "Risk, Michael" <riskmj at mcmaster.ca>
To: Douglas Fenner <douglasfennertassi at gmail.com>
Cc: coral list <coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>
Date: Sat, 9 Feb 2019 01:34:19 +0000
Subject: Re: [Coral-List] effect of sunscreen on corals

This whole thread has been full of straw men and hidden agendas. Allow me
to mow just a couple of the straws.

Craig Downs did NOT say sunscreens were a greater threat to coral reefs
than climate change. The NYT reporter said that. (I asked Craig
specifically about that quote, because it was so obviously untrue.)

None of us is responsible for what spin the media choose to put on our

I hope to heaven that managers don’t make policy from reading magazines.
(Wait…given the evidence, maybe they do.)

HUGE strawman alert: No one, as far as I know, has claimed that banning
oxybenzone will save reefs. What some have suggested is: banning this stuff
is easy, so why not do it. The argument that focussing on oxybenzone will
divert attention from “more serious” problems is an exercise in “Look!
Squirrel"-ism. (I wish it to be noted that I was the first to coin this new

Then there are the usual meeching “objections”, like: "we need more
research." Lord love a duck. Find me ANY field where that could not be
said. These are comments generally made by people who (a) haven’t read the
research or (b) don’t like attention being diverted from their favourite

And finally: this isn’t about fish.


ps-to my few remaining friends out there, re those blank messages: no, I
wasn’t being censored by the -list. In fact, management tried their best,
but there were formatting errors beyond my ageing analog brain.

On Feb 8, 2019, at 1:56 PM, Douglas Fenner <douglasfennertassi at gmail.com>

    It didn't take any digging to read that less than one-page piece on
Downs' website, it was featured on the home page.  The scientific article
is a bit different, 24 pages long.  The introduction does refer to many
studies on oxybenzone which found damaging effects at some concentration on
a wide variety of organisms,scary stuff, obviously real, some in temperate
waters, essentially none corals, and no effects on corals in the ocean
other than inside plastic bags (if I got that right).  The decisions about
management are made by government people who will be unlikely to wade
through the scientific paper.  The general public and perhaps managers will
be the main readers of the website.  I reread that web page and I see
nothing that indicates it is talking about local areas.  You have the
advantage of having read the scientific paper, which the public will not
have read, so you know he's talking about local effects, quite
appropriately.  It is surely just a inadvertent error to not have made
clear on that web page that he's talking about very small areas compared to
the world's coral reefs.  Sorry I hadn't caught that, but if he doesn't
want the general public or government people considering regulations or
rules to misinterpret it as I did and think he's talking about the whole
world's reefs, he might want to add that.  That has been my main point.
The web article, taken literally, says that the effect of sunscreens is
greater than bleaching, and for the general public I still think that will
mislead them, however unintentional it may be.  The web page does not refer
to the original scientific article, it refers to the New York Times
article.  So my concern is about the general public, government, and any
scientists who are not reading the toxicology literature, who could
misinterpret that web page.
      My views on whether sunscreens threaten the world's reefs or are
limited to small local areas are unchanged.  I think a lot of people have
jumped to the conclusion that they are a big threat to the world's reefs,
hence my comments on that.
      If there are hundreds of people working on the effects of sunscreens
on corals, they must have started working on it very recently, unless I've
missed a huge number of new papers.  I know of only 4 papers published on
the effects of oxybenzone on corals so far, the Downs article, one by
Danovero, and two by He.  Perhaps the hundreds of studies are mostly about
organisms other than corals.  I am not in contact with research in progress
on this topic, perhaps new papers will all replicate this finding.  Even if
a paper has not proved something to everyone's satisfaction, that doesn't
mean its conclusions are wrong, further work may confirm them.  But wait a
minute, if there are hundreds of people working on the effects of
sunscreens on corals, that takes some serious funding and involves a lot of
researchers.  Or is it hundreds of people working on the effects of
oxybenzone on all sorts of things but a much smaller number working on the
effects on corals?  The funding that has to be spent on hundreds of people
studying can't be spent on other things, the real, big threats to coral
reefs.  Same for the researcher time, effort and ingenuity.  All spent on
one of the most trivial threats to coral reefs instead of one of the more
important threats.  That is a zero-sum game for reef research, and if
hundreds of people are working on a trivial threat, that's an effort and
expense that could much better be spent on an important threat to coral
reefs.  That's the principle of triage, the high priority threats are the
ones you put your most effort into, unless you don't mind losing your
      I have always supported using the precautionary principle, which for
me comes up most often with fisheries.  I am safe in supporting it, no risk
anyone is going to implement it.  Nobody is going to use the precautionary
principle with reef fisheries, you'd have to shut down all the world's reef
fisheries.  Locally, there are reef fish stock assessments done quite a
while ago (led by Jerry Ault) that show clearly that several predatory reef
fish species in Florida are overfished.  Yet to my knowledge there has been
NO management efforts by the state or local government to restrict fishing
even enough to bring stocks up to maximum sustainable yield (MSY).  That is
a known local damaging effect on reef ecosystems which Key West, the state,
and other jurisdictions have not applied the precautionary principle to.
There may be others that Key West has not tackled, I certainly haven't
heard that they have a plan to bring their greenhouse gas emissions way
down.  Why not??  Because there would be huge public and corporate outcry
and likely they'd get booted out in the next election.  Classic case (as
with nearly everywhere else) of treating the scratch while letting the
patient die to a gun shot wound to the chest.  It is possible that any and
all fishing, which kills and removes reef fish, damages the reef
ecosystem.  Commonly, we focus on "overfishing" but in fact fishing that is
less than Maximum Sustainable Yield may also damage the reef ecosystem,
though presumably less so.  A myriad of other things humans do probably or
in some cases, clearly do, damage coral reef ecosystems, few of which are
regulated or banned under the "precautionary principle."  Walking on reef
flats to glean or even do research damages them.  Divers damage them, we've
all broken a coral from time to time.  Snorkelers do as well.  Small boats
do damage by anchoring or running aground.  There are a myriad of major
damages from people on land, sediment, nutrients, etc.  Then there is
releasing all those greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, cutting forests,
and on and on.  Sunscreens are low hanging fruit, easy to ban those with
particular chemicals in them as a precautionary approach.  Will it make
much difference and will we be as zealous tackling the things that really
threaten worldwide reefs?  (if not, it is not your fault, Mike, we all want
to reduce human impacts, but for most such things the opposition is
enormous.  Which is why we have been losing for so long.)  So in effect,
this ban on sunscreens is re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, a
feel-good exercise, in my opinion.
     I just realized that the precautionary principle can be in conflict
with triage.  The scratch on the hand might get infected, so take the
precautionary approach and treat it.  But if you do that, you may not treat
the gunshot wound to the chest at the same time (unless you have lots of
medical staff), and the patient will die very quickly.  Our problem is our
patient is dying and we are vastly underfunded and understaffed, so what
are we going to do, treat the scratch while the reef dies?
     Sorry, I tend to think banning oxybenzone is a feel-good exercise that
will not make a dent in saving world reefs.
      Cheers,  Doug

On Tue, Feb 5, 2019 at 1:10 PM Risk, Michael <riskmj at mcmaster.ca> wrote:

You are correct, that post is far too long-especially as you could have
read the freakin paper in the length of time it took you to compose it. I
had expected better from you.

You have dug into Downs' website and quote-mined from an article which was
clearly discussing local stresses. We scientists don't go by blog posts, we
go by the literature. To save you the trouble, here is a quote: "BP-3
contamination from beaches can travel over 0.6 km in distance from the
pollution source. The threat of BP-3 to corals and coral reefs from
swimmers and point and non-point sources of waste-water could thus be far
more extensive than just a few meters surrounding the swimming area." Sound
reasonable? And, if I can read that paper and understand it, so can you.

This is a large field, with by now a voluminous literature. Those to whom I
have talked have always said, this is a local problem, one that may be
larger than we had thought-and it's easy to fix. What is wrong with that??
What is wrong with those who would challenge that?

I am also disappointed that you managed to slide in the suggestion that
Craig's results were coloured by his finances. Doug, there are hundreds of
people working on this! If you are going to chuck around driveby's you will
be very busy. Yes, Craig supports his foundation on donations and
contracts. Please don't go after him for this.

My original post has only been up for a few hours. Here is one off-line
response I have received, from a well-known reef scientist with 8,000
citations: "This article is really upsetting. Glad you responded. I'm a tad
shocked that Terry wrote this. Seems that ignoring 'precautionary
principles' is what often gets us in these messes in the first place and
then its too damn late."

What's wrong with saying, we can fix this and move on?


Douglas Fenner
Ocean Associates, Inc. Contractor
NOAA Fisheries Service
Pacific Islands Regional Office
PO Box 7390
Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799  USA

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