17 July 2012


Like tropical rain forests, oceanic coral reefs (see image above, click to enlarge) host the greatest biodiversity to be found on our planet.  Each day brings the discovery of previously unknown species, insights into how complex systems function, and the possibility of deriving life-saving medicines.  Along with sea plankton, rain forests and coral reefs also produce a significant portion of the oxygen in our atmosphere.  And like tropical rain forests, coral reefs (which serve as nurseries for myriad fish species) are fast disappearing, victims of the depredations and pollution produced by humans.

What to do?  One aspect of science in general and biology in particular, is a range of opinions expressed in open, often energetic debate.  The difference between scientific debate and, say, political debate is that opinions must be based on sound evidence, provided by research and analysis.

Recently a NYTimes editorial, A World Without Coral Reefs, made the following assertions ~ "It's past time to tell the truth about the state of the world's coral reefs, the nurseries of tropical coastal fish stocks.  They have become zombie ecosystems, neither dead nor truly alive in any functional sense, and on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation.  There will be remnants here and there, but the global coral reef ecosystem ~ with its storehouse of biodiversity and fisheries supporting millions of the world's poor ~ will cease to be.

"Overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution are pushing coral reefs into oblivion.  Each of these forces alone is fully capable of causing the global collapse of coral reefs.  Together, they assure it.  The scientific evidence for this is compelling and unequivocal, but there seems to be a collective reluctance to accept the logical conclusion ~ that there is no hope of saving the global coral reef ecosystem.

" .... Overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution have two features in common.  First, they are accelerating.  They are growing broadly in line with global economic growth, so they can double in size every couple of decades.  Second, they have extreme inertia ~ there is no real prospect of changing their trajectories in less than 20 to 50 years.  In short, these forces are unstoppable and irreversible.  And it is these two features ~ acceleration and inertia ~ that have blindsided us."

The author, Australian ecologist Roger Bradbury, insists that rather than devoting time and financial resources to protecting and restoring coral reefs, we should be using those funds to study what to do after the reefs are gone ~ to divine what sorts of systems (if any) will replace coral reefs, to transfer the genetic resources of coral reefs to non-reef systems, and to prepare the human communities which rely on reef fisheries for subsistence to transition to alternative sources of food and income.

Perhaps Bradbury is being sensibly pragmatic.  My reading is that his opinion on how to address the reef crisis (give up) is fatalistic and ignores the real strides being made by those who are involved in regenerating reefs.  Moreover, Bradbury's bias is economic, regarding reefs as human resources rather than communities which we have an ecological and a moral obligation to try to save, however daunting the obstacles.  We created the crisis, it is up to us to solve it.  Shrugging our responsibility aside by insisting that we were somehow "blindsided" by the acceleration and inertia of overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution is nonsense.  The world community of ecologists and environmentalists has been having this discussion for three decades or more.

Contrast, then, the above NYTimes article with this one, When Coral Reefs Recover.  Energy and environmental blogger Melissa Gaskill, reporting on an international symposium on coral reefs, discovered a very different and more optimistic response to the crisis, based on human efforts to establish and protect coral reef reserves and marine parks.  "Ocean acidification, warming water temperatures, pollution and overfishing pose dire threats to coral reefs worldwide.  On the plus side, reducing these threats locally can improve reef conditions.  The bad news is that coral reefs bounce back more slowly than other marine ecosytems like estuaries.  So the sooner action is taken, the better.

" .... After the establishment of the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park ~ and more than 10 years of local enforcement of no-take inside its boundaries ~ the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that the amount of fish biomass in the protected area had increased more than fivefold, and shark biomass, tenfold.  That's the largest absolute increase in fish biomass ever measured in a marine reserve anywhere in the world.

"What is more, the benefits of this kind of protection extend beyond the boundaries of a protected area .... marine reserves help restore depleted populations on neighboring reefs .... Networks of reserves could therefore contribute substantially to the long-term sustainability of coral reef fisheries .... Other studies have shown that strict enforcement of marine reserves not only helps marine life but can reduce local poverty [by training local residents to offer eco-tourism services built around the area's natural assets]."

So in listening to a scientific debate, whom does one believe?  No one, initially.  First each of us must become informed on the issue, and familiar with not only points of view, but how those points of view have shifted over time, and what biases may inform them.  It's not as daunting as it sounds.  All it requires is paying attention, something we all should be doing anyway.  Curiosity is a mark of human intellect.  Apathy is a mark of human indifference.  There is no room for indifference when our own actions are creating deleterious global effects which our children and grandchildren will have to remedy.

As already noted, healthy debate is a hallmark of scientific discussion.  Based on the evidence, one could make a case for either article's point of view.  It all depends on whether you're willing to give up without a fight.  I'm not willing to do that.  No action, or action now?  There's no middle ground.

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