[Coral-List] effect of sunscreen on corals

Steve Mussman sealab at earthlink.net
Sat Feb 9 17:29:53 UTC 2019

Dear Mike,

I still cannot buy into your argument. 

I don’t believe that anyone is saying that researchers are claiming that harmful ingredients in sunscreens are a “greater threat” to coral reefs than climate change (or over-fishing or land-based pollutants), but I can provide evidence that media spin can and does distort things to that end. When such misconceptions become pervasive, I would think that researchers/scientists have some responsibility to set the record straight lest they will appear to be complicit. 

Let me provide you with a specific example by way of an excerpt from an article that appeared in a diving periodical entitled “Sunscreens Linked to Coral Bleaching”.  

Let’s say you are layperson without vast knowledge of the issues at hand. What would you glean from the following passage regarding the relative significance of the various stressors involved in coral bleaching?     “Many factors threaten corals, including physical damage from anchoring, fishing with explosives, excess heating of the ocean's surface and pollution. Somewhat recently, a new emergency has been added to the list of the top-10 threats to coral reefs around the globe: sunscreens. Scientific investigations conducted at several reefs around the world — in the Caribbean, Fiji, the Red Sea and the Coral Triangle — indicate that the effects are almost immediate and generally lead to coral death within 48 hours”.    (By the way, the above was written by a professor of marine biology and ecology).

 If I am not well versed on the subject, this may well convince me that harmful sunscreens are on par with climate change and land-based pollutants. If I were a coral scientist or even just a concerned and educated environmentalist, I would demand clarification! Scientists can’t control all the media spin, but they can certainly take steps to correct any obvious misrepresentations of the facts at hand. 

As for hidden agendas, seems to me that almost everyone has their pet focus. Climate change, invasive species, restoration, plastic trash, African dust and overall water quality among them. So what’s the bottom line?  If we are ever going to have half a chance to save coral reefs in the Anthropocene we have to set egos aside, get over our narrow differences and set clear and unambiguous priorities. As least one of the goals of science is to communicate effectively with the broader society. As I see it, up until now,  the marine sciences as a discipline seems to be falling far short of that important and consequential objective.

P.S. If this isn’t about fish why did your colleague write that “(sunscreens) threaten the the capacity of local subsistence fishermen to access the abundance of food that healthy nearshore reefs once provided”?    I ask these questions respectfully and with great admiration for your work.

Sent from my iPad

> On Feb 9, 2019, at 8:46 AM, Mike Jankulak - NOAA Affiliate via Coral-List <coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov> wrote:
> 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>
> Bcc:
> Date: Sat, 9 Feb 2019 01:34:19 +0000
> Subject: Re: [Coral-List] effect of sunscreen on corals
> Doug:
> 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
> research.
> 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
> noun.)
> 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
> area.
> And finally: this isn’t about fish.
> Mike
> 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>
> wrote:
> Mike,
>   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
> patient.
>     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:
> Doug.
> 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?
> Mike
> -- 
> Douglas Fenner
> Ocean Associates, Inc. Contractor
> NOAA Fisheries Service
> Pacific Islands Regional Office
> Honolulu
> and:
> Consultant
> PO Box 7390
> Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799  USA
> How to win public support for a global carbon tax
> https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00124-x
> Global warming will happen faster than we think.
> https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07586-5
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> finds
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