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Conveying the message of global coral reef decline


I got back from Australia 4 days ago and have begun to digest what I learned at the 2012 International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS2012), and at related events before and after.  The good news is that the depth and breadth of science studies on coral reefs is more impressive than ever.  Good science is being done on a broad array of questions, and while there remain gaps in knowledge, the scientific community has a very good understanding of how these iconic ecosystems are faring.  The bad news is that they are not faring very well, and one of the most interesting developments from my perspective has been the growing divergence of opinion among reef scientists about how to convey this message to the world.

I will write about some of the good news in later posts, but let’s get the bad news out now.  As nearly everyone knows (or should), human impacts on coral reefs continue to take a toll.  We chronically overfish them, depleting them of vital ecosystem services provided by certain fish species at the same time as we erode their capacity to provide fishery products that are a major component of the protein food of coastal populations throughout the tropics.  The reduction in herbivory and bioerosion caused by overfishing of parrotfishes can have major flow-on effects on the struggle between seaweeds and corals for space on the reef.  We continue to pollute them through inappropriate land management that leads to soil erosion and transport of agricultural chemicals to coastal waters, through inadequate treatment of domestic and industrial wastes that deliver nutrients and a wide range of chemical substances to coastal waters, and through inappropriate coastal protection, modification and reclamation that directly silt them over or alter water flows.  And we use inappropriate fishing methods, or take other actions that directly damage the exquisite reef topography upon which many reef creatures depend.

None of these “local” impacts is new.  None occurs on all reefs, but all are widespread, and despite decades of education and intervention by NGOs, by management agencies, and by local communities that recognize the value of caring for “their” reefs, these impacts continue.  Numerous papers and posters at ICRS2012 reported on effects or on successful interventions addressing such local impacts.  Yet it appears we are not very good at recognizing the need for intervention, or at learning from the experiences of other communities near other reefs.  It’s not rocket science!  Effective local management of coral reefs pays big dividends for coastal communities, but we do not routinely practice it the way we should.

The “global” impacts of climate change and ocean acidification can only be treated with global solutions, and are a relatively recent development.  Their effects on coral reefs are just beginning (the first extensive mass bleaching of corals due to warmer than usual temperatures occurred just 30 years ago), but they are growing in importance.  There were several sessions at ICRS2012, and two plenary addresses, by Drs. Madeleine Van Oppen and Denis Allemand, dealing directly with the advances in our understanding of how corals cope with the stress of acidification.  Ocean acidification may well turn out to be a bigger problem for the oceans than warming due to climate change, but the science reported at ICRS2012 revealed the complexity of the calcification process, and the variability among different species of calcifying organisms.  Reefs are going to be changed as ocean acidification proceeds, but the impacts are going to vary from one coral species to another, and among the other calcifiers including molluscs, echinoderms, crustacean, fish and many other taxa.  As with osteoporosis in humans, the impacts of acidification will be profound but variable.

Most notable to me were two references to our cumulative impacts on coral reefs.  Jeremy Jackson used his plenary address as the 2012 recipient of the Darwin Medal, to highlight some of the findings his team has been able to extract from Caribbean data on reef health over the past 40 years.  While there are clear differences across the Caribbean, differences which can be important biologically, the average percentage coral cover on reefs in the early 1970s was about 50%.  In 2011 it’s more like 10%.  Peter Doherty, of AIMS, in a paper given on the Thursday, and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, in his plenary address on Friday, both alluded to data now in press on coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef.  Peter did not reveal the scale on the axis of the graph, but Ove did – from 1985 through 2011, average coral cover on the permanent sites throughout the Great Barrier Reef that are surveyed by the AIMS monitoring program has fallen from about 28% to about 12% due to combined effects of bleaching, cyclone damage and Crown-of-Thorns starfish outbreaks (all factors influenced by human activities).  Unlike the Caribbean, the Great Barrier Reef is widely recognized as very well managed since 1979, and “in relatively good condition”.  Apparently not, and this result, above all others, was deeply alarming to me.

But what about the diverging opinions among reef scientists about how to convey this information of our impacts on reefs to the world?  Reef scientists have been warning of the risks to reefs from the combination of climate change and local insults for at least 15 years, longer in some cases.  The message does not yet seem to have had much impact on those who make national policy regarding use of fossil fuels, and the sense has developed that we have to do a better job of conveying the message.  This is an ongoing struggle within the coral reef community.  It is clear that preaching doom and gloom only turns people off.  But when the story is one that is largely doom and gloom, what do you say that retains a scientist’s adherence to the facts, but avoids turning people off?  At Cairns, the mantra seemed to be “avoid doom and gloom, focus on the few bright spots of hope”, and speakers struggled more or less successfully to do that.  I’m not convinced that is an adequate solution.

Timed to coincide with ICRS2012, but appearing a world away as an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Roger Bradbury of Australian National University wrote a blistering attack on what he referred to as an “airbrushed view of the crisis — a view endorsed by coral reef scientists, amplified by environmentalists and accepted by governments”.  Roger summarizes this view as, “coral reefs, like rain forests, are a symbol of biodiversity. And, like rain forests, they are portrayed as existentially threatened — but salvageable. The message is: ‘There is yet hope’.”  He criticizes reef scientists for failing to recognize that the chance of reefs surviving the next 100 years is so remote that it should be discounted, and research effort should be turned instead to how to build/maintain reasonable provision of essential goods and services now provided by reefs once reefs have gone.  Otherwise, he says, “[the loss of coral reefs] will be a disaster for the hundreds of millions of people in poor, tropical countries like Indonesia and the Philippines who depend on coral reefs for food. It will also threaten the tourism industry of rich countries with coral reefs, like the United States, Australia and Japan. Countries like Mexico and Thailand will have both their food security and tourism industries badly damaged. And, almost an afterthought, it will be a tragedy for global conservation as hot spots of biodiversity are destroyed”.

Roger Bradbury’s view goes well beyond doom and gloom, but like an unexpected bucket of cold water in the face it may bring clarity to the discussion.  Despite Bradbury’s pessimism, there is value in attempting even more aggressively than before to mitigate the local factors that impact coral reefs.  Healthier reefs will likely deal more effectively with global insults, and so the message about reef decline must be couched in a way that keeps people optimistic.  Noting that reefs in Bonaire and Curacao have fared far better than those in Jamaica, even while the overall Caribbean trend is downward, is an important message to convey to people in the Netherlands Antilles, and perhaps also in Jamaica.  But telling optimistic stories by itself is definitely not sufficient.  In one of the most telling lines of his article, Roger describes the failure to convey the seriousness of the coral reef crisis as, “less a conspiracy than a sort of institutional inertia. Governments don’t want to be blamed for disasters on their watch, conservationists apparently value hope over truth, and scientists often don’t see the reefs for the corals”.

In my view, we need an accurate presentation of the facts of global reef decline (a doom and gloom story), but including recognition that all reefs are not collapsing immediately, and encouragement to reinvigorate efforts to address the locally acting stressors.  And we need something more – an effective way of reaching those powerful individuals who make the major decisions concerning national and global economies.  How we do that, I am not yet sure, and I know that there is a well-funded, partially well-integrated effort in place to ensure they continue to make decisions that maintain the status quo, and its inevitable worsening of the global environmental crisis.  Changing hearts and minds of those who put short term economic gain for the rich and powerful ahead of long-term gain for humanity will not be easy, especially in the face of this argument for business as usual, but it will not be achieved by focusing on the “few bright spots of hope” in the coral reef story.

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