Risk, Michael riskmj at mcmaster.ca
Mon Aug 10 19:49:15 UTC 2020


   I'm not going down that rathole with you, because it's all been said.
   I'll dig my own hole.

   My opinion is that coral reef biologists bear at least some
   responsibility for the disastrous shape reefs are in now, because of
   their well-known inability to cooperate. We are in the middle of a
   pandemic. Those countries that have done relatively well have followed
   expert advice-and those experts, in the main, all said the same thing.
   Think where we would be now, if only...

   Brian Lapointe started warning about the impacts of nutrients on
   Florida reefs about 40 years ago. Instead of his supremely impressive
   body of work resulting in things like nominations for the Darwin Award,
   he has had to endure decades of character assassination. (I have seen
   some of the correspondence.) After publication of the two Ward-Paige
   papers (MPB 51; MEPS 296), the SECREMP results, and the Porter paper
   showing White Pox was a human fecal bacterium, I thought "OK, that's
   done and dusted. The Florida situation is pretty clear, and surely all
   our colleagues will join us in telling Florida to clean up the water."

   Never happened. There is a generation out there of mostly-US reef
   biologists who really believe that the reefs will come back if the
   grazers come back. They are impervious to anything not fitting that
   narrative (sound familiar?) and push back vigorously. When I was an
   advisor to SEFCRI, I was unable to get the committee even to consider
   setting water quality guidelines (they have since moved on this
   matter). There were papers suggesting nutrients had no effect on coral
   reefs. There were attempts to supress our Florida work (details on
   off-list request).

   Where and how did things go wrong?

   I am trained in biology and geology, have worked in several different
   fields. I am not deep, I am wide. (And, my wife says, getting wider.)
   Seems to me that the historical development of reef geology and reef
   biology followed different paths. Geologists are simple beings. For 200
   years their mantra has been "fossils, rocks, map the country, drink
   beer." There has been a unifying economic thread, and most countries
   have a geological survey. It is no accident that USGS has produced some
   of the most elegant, decisive reef work anywhere-Americans can be proud
   of them. Biology?

   In many universities, especially in the US, it is possible to obtain a
   PhD in "Ecology" without leaving the Biology Department. Reef research
   came to be funded largely through individual competitive grants, such
   as NSF. By its very nature, coral reef research attracted people with
   big egos. (Parasitologists are nice people.) Developers and
   pharmaceutical companies learned that supporting opinions could be
   rented. What could possibly go wrong?

   NSF now reports that reef biologists consistently rate the applications
   they receive to review one full grade below the NSF average. Either
   they are dumb or they are screwing each other in their belief in a
   zero-sum game. One full generation ago, 1977, Stearn and Scoffin showed
   us the overarching importance of bioerosion. Almost none of the zillion
   reef monitoring programs out there make any attempt to assess or even
   identify bioerosion (and of course these programs are all slightly
   different, because Heaven Forbid a researcher would simply adopt
   someone else's protocol-then they'd have to cite them).

   There is no better example of this dysfunctional process than the
   recent exchanges on this -list having to do with impacts of sunscreen.
   The research was electrifying, when it came out: miniscule amounts of
   oxybenzone were capable of shutting down coral reproduction. Safer
   alternatives were available. This should have been a no-brainer: coral
   biologists could have banded together, said "this is easy-ban the stuff
   so we can get on with other things." There has never been a reef
   stressor more easy to deal with.

   Never happened. Pharmaceutical companies threw up smokescreens and
   rented opinions from compliant scientists. Then there were the
   "zero-sum" people, those who evidently believe that a column-inch of
   coverage in NYT was a column-inch that they wouldn't get, and that a
   research dollar to someone else was a dollar denied to them. There were
   many comments basically saying "there are lots of threats to reefs, why
   focus on this one" when they really meant-"what I work on is way more
   important." Craig Downs has made some headway on Hawaii, working with
   local NGO's and a small coterie of colleagues, but he really should
   have had the full support of all 9,000-odd on this -list.

   Some of my best friends are reef biologists, to coin a phrase. I do not
   blame individuals (except those who have taken money from industry to
   fudge the truth). I do feel that the group, as a whole, fumbled the
   ball. We knew, in the early 1980's, all we needed to know: reefs were
   in decline, sewage and sediments were largely to blame. Then we-no,
   YOU-lost the next couple of decades. We will never know what would have
   happened back in, say, 1985, had every reef biologist in North America
   come together to say to Florida: "unless you get water quality under
   control, those reefs will die." We do know what DID happen: and now
   it's too late.

   Climate change? Sure, it's important. Smith et al. 1997 (Nature v.
   386-yikes, 23 freakin years ago!) described how a meltwater event can
   shut down the Gulf Stream in 4 years, a process which seems to be under
   way now. If only people had listened...but, what do I know? I am just
   some old guy in the forest yelling at clouds. Or, as we say up here: a
   guy in the apartment over the meth lab.


   On Aug 8, 2020, at 12:11 AM, Douglas Fenner
   <[1]douglasfennertassi at gmail.com> wrote:

        It is also the case that there is a long laundry list of ways in
   which humans damage reefs.  If scientists simply report the facts of
   which things are damaging the reefs that they work on, there will be
   lots of different messages.  Surely scientists should report those
   facts.  Anybody who says sediments and nutrients don't damage reefs and
   aren't two of the top threats isn't paying attention, most scientists
   agree they are.  When there are heavy rains in Queensland, a huge plume
   of muddy water comes out of the Burdikin River, and smaller amounts out
   other rivers.  Janice Lough led a group that documented an increase in
   sediment in coral skeletons on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) at the time
   of European settlement.  Before I left Australia and moved to American
   Samoa over 16 yrs ago, Queensland was the only state in Australia that
   still allowed land clearing without a permit (hopefully now that has
   changed).  My impression is that sediment and nutrients along with
   crown-of-thorns and now mass coral bleaching, are the major causes of
   loss of corals on the GBR.  Runoff nutrients fuel plankton growth that
   feeds starfish larvae, so nutrient runoff feeds the crown-of-thorns
   outbreaks that are one of the major contributors to loss of corals
   there.  Reefs at Risk worked to evaluate and map the major local
   threats to coral reefs around the world, and found that nutrients and
   sediment from runoff were two of the greatest global threats, along
   with overfishing, if I remember.  They didn't evaluate bleaching since
   they did not view it as a mappable local threat.
         It appears to me, since climate change is often regarded as the
   greatest single future threat to the world, and there is a continuous
   stream of stories about it getting worse, that people assume that it
   causes all damage to reefs or is the only threat of importance.  Not
   so.  Some have jumped to the conclusion that the loss of coral in
   Florida and the Caribbean was due to global warming and bleaching.  My
   understanding is that the primary cause of much of the coral decline
   there was white band disease which killed most of two (elkhorn and
   staghorn) coral species out of three that commonly dominated reefs
   there, plus a growing number and prevalence of other diseases, plus a
   new disease that is now ravaging reefs there.  In recent years the
   damage from bleaching has increased as well.  The ultimate causes of
   the diseases is up for discussion, my understanding is that increased
   temperatures speeds some diseases but not others.  Surely many other
   things including nutrients and sediments weaken corals and make them
   more vulnerable to disease.   So I think you are right that it is way
   too easy to blame everything on bleaching and global warming.  Though
   that might be understandable when the world's largest reef system (GBR)
   has a lot (though not all, thank heavens) of it turn white and die in
   front of your eyes, and predictions based on global warming are for
   much worse in the future.
        When there are so many things damaging reefs, I don't think it is
   surprising that scientists have not spoken with one voice.  Which
   threat is greatest depends to some extent on where you are.  We do need
   to attack them all, probably in proportion to how big a threat they are
   at each location.  (I think many people are doing that)  One size does
   not fit all, diversity rules.  For the world as a whole, many people
   think, based on the published evidence, that climate-change driven
   heating and mass bleaching is the greatest future threat to corals, and
   one that if we don't tackle will kill most of what scraps of coral are
   left alive from all the other ways we abuse coral.
   Cheers, Doug
   On Wed, Aug 5, 2020 at 3:34 AM Risk, Michael <[2]riskmj at mcmaster.ca>

   tl/dr. The problem remains, coral reef biologists have consistently
   failed to speak with one voice. Reasons involve personal agendas and
   income streams: proponents usually use science selectively.
   You thank the media for coverage of damage. 90% of coverage (my
   estimate) of reef damage has involved climate change. I have a MS to
   review at the moment, in which this phrase catches my eye:
   "the ecology of the GBR region is suffering from the chronic effects of
   eutrophication brought about by the discharge of nutrients from the
   developed catchments."

   From: Coral-List <[3]coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov> on behalf
   of Douglas Fenner via Coral-List <[4]coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>
   Sent: Tuesday, August 4, 2020 4:07 PM
   To: [5]coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
   <[6]coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>
   Subject: Re: [Coral-List] A Swim Through Time on Carysfort Reef; EFFORT

   Apologies, that post got sent before it was ready.
      So during rapid economic growth, such as the industrial revolution
   the UK, Europe, and the US, pollution rapidly grew out of control, and
   people didn't realize the source of the problem.  In London, "London
   was really smog from burning coal in fireplaces to heat homes.  At one
   point it killed about 2000 people.  If you travel above ground sections
   the subway there today, you see nearly endless rows of houses all with
   smoke stacks.  But zero smoke.  You look around and the air looks
   People aren't choking on it.  There was a time, maybe in the 60's, when
   Tokyo's air was so bad there were coin operated machines on the
   that dispensed oxygen for those who needed it.  No more, like London,
   gigantic urban area with something like 24 million people, has air that
   looks clear and people aren't choking and dying in the streets.
   Pittsburgh, in the US used to have blackened buildings from the soot
   coal-fired steel mills.  No more, the mills are gone, people have other
   jobs, the buildings were cleaned, the city gleams and competes for the
   quality of life in the USA.  Tell me those aren't success stories!!!!
   CAN and WILL be repeated, China and India know they have a terrible air
   pollution problem, and they are on it.  They know about the huge health
   costs of caring for people sickened by it, lost work hours, lost lives.
   China is now the world's largest solar panel manufacturer.  India has a
   plan for renewables that is so ambitious people doubt they can do it
   fast.  (No, the air is far from perfect, and the battle is not over.
   will never be over, but  real progress has been made and will be made.)
       There are huge constituencies for the environment, and politicians
   ignore that to their own peril.  BUT, there are lots of things people
   consider benefits of doing things that end up damaging the environment,
   including coral reefs, and can come back to bite us.  Coral reefs are
   major  tourist attractions.  They feed hundreds of millions of poor
   along coasts, and they provide hundreds of millions of dollars worth of
   coastal protection.
        There is a story that someone came to US president FDR once and
   pleaded for action on something.  FDR grinned and said "make me do
   it!"  He
   wasn't mocking the person, he was saying he has to have support.  Get
   constituents and supporters to make a LOT of noise and DEMAND it, and I
   will do it gladly.
         Right now is the opposite of the ideal time given the pandemic
   emergency, but different issues are commonly addressed simultaneously.
    Environmental battles never end, there is no inevitability of either
   winning or losing.  Persistence and determination and action and things
   that appeal to the public help win battles, sitting in the ivory tower
   not speaking out don't.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, sticking
   neck out is absolutely required to make progress.  The squeaky wheel
   the grease.  I have to say that the media have been an enormous help
   us, the articles on the damage we do to the reefs and oceans and
   change has been nearly endless.  The more people know that their income
   health is threatened, the more outraged they are, and the more pressure
   they apply.  Part of our problem is that the threats to humans from us
   degrading the reefs is not always obvious enough.  We need to make it
   obvious and unavoidably obvious.  But I think polls have shown an
   increasing concern about climate change and support for action.  I
   the tide is shifting in our favor on this issue, and it is the biggest
   threat to the future of reefs.
        So this is a call to action.  Action gets results, inaction
   When people believe that it is in their own best interests to save the
   reefs, they WILL get saved.  Not until then.
   Cheers,  Doug
   On Tue, Aug 4, 2020 at 8:23 AM Douglas Fenner
   <[7]douglasfennertassi at gmail.com>
   > I believe that everyone in this discussion is making good points.
   >     I would like to add a hint of optimism.  There are aspects of
   > environmental battles that provide solid grounds for optimism, as
   well as
   > for caution and pessimism.  The grounds for optimism are that people
   > like things that threaten their health, or survival, or income, or
   > livelihoods.  A few years ago in the US lead was discovered in the
   > supply in Flint, Michigan.  It was in the international news.
   > resulted.  I haven't kept up with the story, but I bet it is being
   > because if it isn't, the outrage is a threat to the political careers
   > elected officials.  ]k= =-z>:"AA^%q
   > On Tue, Aug 4, 2020 at 1:36 AM Steve via Coral-List <
   > [8]coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov> wrote:
   >> Mike Risk's perspective on the effects of coral scientists not
   >> with a unified voice clearly resonates with me.
   >> While the point is well taken that people have shown that they care
   >> more about other things, how can we expect this dynamic to ever
   change when
   >> the messaging they receive from the "experts" in the coral science
   >> community continues to be rife with ambiguity? Policy makers respond
   >> monied interests, but public opinion matters too and there is every
   >> indication that interest in environmental issues is on the rise,
   >> with the younger generation.
   >> What would happen if the messaging put out about what we need to do
   >> "save coral reefs" was done with more clarity, simplicity and
   >> Consider the paper cited
   >> on survivorship of the ongoing NRP (NOAA Recovery Plan) in the
   Florida Keys
   >> Marine Sanctuary. As I read it, the paper makes it clear that
   >> stressors is required before significant population growth and
   >> will occur. Until then, outplanting protects against local
   extinction and
   >> helps maintain genetic diversity in the wild". Although this
   >> points to a significant role for restoration, it makes clear that
   >> (both local and global) stressors is paramount.
   >> Why can't we make that point clear? What's so hard about selling the
   >> public on the idea that we must restore some semblance of the
   >> ecological balance? Clean up the water; promote sustainable
   fisheries and
   >> cut carbon emissions. That simple message has yet to resonate in the
   >> domain. Instead, many have become convinced that the only viable
   >> is to race to outplant supercorals designed to withstand an
   inevitable and
   >> mounting onslaught of stressors that are somehow beyond our control.
   >> I have listened to many gray-haired coral reef scientists and
   >> obviously more capitulation out there than optimism.
   >> So, does it even matter at this point if we change the messaging?
   >> not, but it may represent our best last chance to try.
   >> Regards,
   >> Steve Mussman
   >> Sent from EarthLink Mobile mail
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