This week I put on my ‘business suit’ and gave a talk to our daughters’ Montessori school on World Oceans Day about the oceans, especially coral reefs, and what we can do to help them. I told them about all the things the oceans do for people, and how, for example, lots of people all around the world depend on coral reefs to feed their families. “Why aren’t we taking care of the corals, then?” one of them asked. A pretty obvious question, but one that isn’t easy to answer. If more people understood the connection between their carbon-producing daily activities (e.g., driving, flying, air conditioning, food choices, etc.), AND the same people had an emotional connection of some sort with reefs, perhaps humanity would collectively be doing a better job of curbing our impacts on coral reefs. Talking to children like this is one way I can make a teensy tiny difference in both of those regards. Hopefully by the time these children are old enough to make their own decisions, saving coral reefs will still be an option.
We took to the streets in Sydney this past weekend, along with hundreds of thousands of other concerned people all over the world, to call for evidence-based policy decisions in the best interest of humanity and the planet. Worryingly, as we all know, science and even basic truthfulness is currently under heavy attack in US politics. We nearly didn’t make it out the door to get to the march in time, thanks to a series of pretty standard parenting mishaps…but we persisted nonetheless, both for the sake of making out voice heard and teaching our children to do the same. Hopefully, in the coming years, the pendulum will swing back towards fact- and evidence-based decision making. But if not, at least we’ve primed our personal next generation to get out there and keep on shouting until it does.
This week I had the pleasure of being part of a small contingent from the Australian Coral Reef Society to brief The Honourable Mark Butler, the Parliamentary Shadow Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Water on the threats facing Australian coral reefs and possible policy-based solutions. It was a rare and welcome opportunity to do my part to help bridge the science-policy gap! Mr. Butler was well-informed and interested in what we had to say, asking great questions and likewise helping us to understand the political considerations surrounding coral reef conservation policy. Hopefully this will be the start of an ongoing dialogue between the Shadow Minister’s office and our scientific society.
UPDATE: Now, two weeks later, the Labour Party has announced that it will pledge $500m over five years to support scientific monitoring and science-based management of the Great Barrier Reef. Labour leader Bill Shorten said the GBR is now one of party’s ‘highest priorities’. Hopefully we had some role in helping make that the case!
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List classifies species into categories of risk of extinction. Assessments are mostly based on quantitative data and evaluate if the population of a given species is either declining or stable. Species for which insufficient data are available to make an assessment of extinction risk are termed ‘Data Deficient’. The groupers are commercially important marine fishes for which approximately one-third of species are data deficient. However, since species in the Data Deficient category could fall into any of the other Red List categories of risk, conservation programs may neglect genuinely threatened species due to their uncertain conservation status. In a new paper published in Conservation Letters, Osmar led a team of researchers from the Quantitative Ecology and Evolution and Marine Ecology and Conservation groups at Macquarie University to analyze the biological traits of grouper species that were classified into a risk category and generated a statistical model to predict in which category each of the Data Deficient species is more likely to be classified. Among 50 Data Deficient grouper species, seven stand out either as vulnerable to extinction or as endangered. This model provides a way to prioritize the so often limited resources available for the conservation of poorly-known species.
Due largely to the record-breaking high temperatures we’ve had lately, large sections of the northern Great Barrier Reef have begun bleaching (i.e., expelling the symbiotic algae that live within coral tissue and serve as a life-support system for corals). This is very bad news. In past bleaching events like this, some coral reefs never recover and become seaweed-dominated reefs lacking coral. Most experts agree that the root causes of the high temperatures (and the resulting coral bleaching events) include the burning of fossil fuels and release of other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (e.g., through beef production)…which are both ultimately driven by human overpopulation and overconsumption.
Below are some recent photos taken by coral reef scientists Wen-Sung Chung and Justin Marshall (University of Queensland) from Lizard Island on Australia’s northern Great Barrier Reef. They tell a sad, rapidly-unfolding story of desperate corals.
While in Key West recently, we also had a chance to get a quick look at the grazing halos that are about 8 kms offshore within the Western Sambo Ecological Reserve. Years ago, Dr. Tom Adam pointed these out to me on Google Earth, and they’re still some of the clearest examples of grazing halos we’ve seen anywhere in the world. I’ve always been curious about what the patch reef communities within the halos look like. It turns out they’re quite beautiful, with lots of sea fans and sea whips and fairly high live coral cover (though no staghorn or elkhorn, at least at the ones we visited). There were also more predatory fish than I expected to see for a place as heavily fished as the Keys. The halo itself was as clear as you’d expect from the imagery, with essentially bare sand adjacent to the reef. This bare area extends for about 6-8 metres, at which point the seagrass becomes increasingly dense and tall – just as we’d expect from theory and the satellite imagery.
It’s great to see our science reaching the public! My recent Nature commentary was cited this month in The New Yorker as the basis for the amount of coral reef destruction resulting from China’s recent push to expand their territory in the South China Sea. Dr. Marcia Bjornerud’s compelling retrospective article, “Six Earth-Moving Moments of 2015”, highlights China’s land-building activities among the most “notable ground-shifting events of 2015” and discusses how these events “altered not only our landscapes but also our thinking about how Earth works.”
My commentary piece in this week’s issue of Nature, “Land reclamation: Halt reef destruction in the South China Sea”, describes how China’s aggressive and ongoing land reclamation pursuits in the South China Sea have been highlighted as a pressing geopolitical problem, but they are also causing irreversible destruction of one of the world’s most sensitive and threatened ecosystems: coral reefs.
In addition to the estimates of reef loss that’s already occurred (as calculated by the Asia Marine Transparency Initiative), I used recent historical imagery in Google Earth to measure a few of the resulting sediment plumes. I found that remaining coral is likely being smothered daily by current-borne plumes nearly twice the size of the archipelago’s total reef area lost (unpublished data). For coral reefs, which are a food source for ~500 million people worldwide and are facing global decline, this escalating scale is non-trivial.
This latest demonstration of Chinese geopolitical aspirations provides an urgent impetus for the global scientific, conservation and law communities to unite to halt this destruction. Scientists, including citizen scientists, can readily quantify reef loss with freely-available imagery and tools in Google Earth. Using these data, international governing bodies can and should trigger enforcement actions for China’s obligations under international law.