Give Up on Coral Reefs? There’s Plenty Left to Fight for, Scientists Say | Oceana
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A sea turtle swims over the tops of corals in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. While 2016 was the worst coral mortality event ever recorded, scientists say that there's still plenty we can do to protect reefs.

Photo Credit: Sebastien Burel / Shutterstock

A recent ‘obituary’ for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has some scientists shaking their heads over the article’s inaccuracies — and others shaking their fists that doom-and-gloom messages detract from real gains in reef conservation. The world’s reefs are far from dead, scientists say. And there’s a lot we can still do to protect them.

Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-2016), published in Outside Magazine in October, was a satirical eulogy for the world’s corals. Along with Australia, the author also announced the death of reefs in Florida and the ‘Coral Triangle’ formed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. As for Belize’s barrier reef — the second-longest in the world — it was described as surviving only in “fragments.”

Scientists weren’t impressed: “I read the first bit and then decided it wasn’t particularly accurate or interesting,” said Thomas Bridge, a researcher who studies Australia’s deep-dwelling corals. But the article struck a nerve on social media. It went viral, and many people took the author’s message at face value — much to the chagrin of those who know that the world’s reefs are very much alive and kicking.

Terry Hughes, the director of the Australian Research Council’s Center for Coral Reef Excellence, expressed his alarm on Twitter: “NOOOO! This is SO WRONG to write off the #GreatBarrierReef. We can & must save it, and reef tourism jobs — Article is full of misinformation.”

Life’s a bleach and then you die

In 2016, soaring temperatures in the Pacific Ocean bleached over 90 percent the Great Barrier Reef. Heat-stressed corals ‘bleach’ when they lose their colorful symbiotic algae, which provide up to 90 percent of their hosts’ food. If water temperatures return to normal within a month or two, corals can regain their algae and survive.

But cooler water has been in short supply as of late. In a matter of months, extreme heat killed a total of 22 percent Australia’s 2,300 kilometer (1,400 mile) long reef, the worst bleaching event on record. It’s no surprise that a heart-stopping statistic like that one can inspire apocalyptic thinking — and articles along the lines of Outside Magazine’s ‘obituary.’

But Bridge argued that fatalism is the wrong way to be looking at the problem. “The way the argument is portrayed in the media is very binary: Reefs are either alive or dead, and this isn’t how reefs or other ecosystems operate.”

He explained that the world’s corals are in a very different state now compared to 100 years ago, not to mention 20,000 years ago when sea level was 130 meters (430 feet) lower than it is today. “So I don’t really like the argument about ‘saving’ reefs per se,” Bridge said, “because there is not really any law about what a reef should be or look like.”

A fighting chance

Many reef advocates say that local efforts can play a central role in keeping corals healthy enough to withstand and adapt to climate change.  These include reducing pollution and coastal development, protecting the plant-eating fish that keep algae from smothering corals, and stopping destructive fishing practices like the use of cyanide and dynamite.

Janet Gibson, a biologist with four decades of experience protecting Belize’s marine treasures, took issue with the article: “I would not describe the Belize Barrier Reef as only remnants, at least not yet, despite the fact that it is not healthy.”

“I still believe that by mitigating other human-induced impacts as much as possible,” she said, “we could help make the reef more resilient to the onslaught of climate change — give it a fighting chance to exist, even if it is in a different state, with corals that are hardier or evolved to withstand warmer seas.”

Guardians of the sea

Patrick Christie, a professor at the University of Washington who studies marine resource management, described giving up as “a ridiculous and fatalistic attitude” — and one that’s a relative luxury reserved for those whose lives and livelihoods don’t depend on the sea. 

“My outlook, rather than to become a cynic,” he said, “is to question what we did wrong, reflect on what we can do better, and get active before it’s too late — for the corals but especially for the people who are most vulnerable and dependent on the coral reefs.”

Globally, the livelihoods of at least 500 million people are tied to coral reefs. A quarter of all small-scale fishers around the world are reef fishers. And reefs bring in $30 billion each year in benefits for fisheries, tourism and coastal protection.

Christie pointed to successes in places like Apo Island in the Philippines, where the reef was once “trashed” by dynamite and cyanide fishing, but flourished under effective local stewardship. A portion of the waters around this small island were protected in 1981. By the 1998, local fishers’ catch had increased by over 40 percent.

A study released last July found that “bright spots” among the world’s coral reefs — defined as areas with unusually high numbers of fish — were characterized by local customs such as traditional limits or taboos on fishing and strong participation in resource management  decisions.

The authors concluded that investments that bolster local governance of coral reefs “could help communities to innovate in ways that allow them to defy expectations.”

Protecting the protectors

There’s little disagreement among scientists that reefs will not survive unless we take swift action to slash fossil fuel emissions — action that has not been forthcoming. As the International Society for Reef Studies noted in a 2015 statement, “the emission reduction pledges submitted to date by the international community fall well short of what is required to avoid this biodiversity catastrophe.”

But, as many sources indicated, work to slow climate change needs to go hand-in-hand with efforts to safeguard reef communities. 

“We can’t have our cake and eat it too,” Christie explained. “We can’t have coral reefs, or rain forests or whatever ecological treasure we want, unless we deal with the fundamental inequities and injustices of the world.”