Coral Reefs in Crisis: Finding Nemo May Become a lot Tougher

By Tara Haelle If your food sources vanished tomorrow, how long would it take you to starve to death?

What if your diet until this sudden starvation already lacked the nutrients to keep your bones strong and healthy? What if you were already suffering from the flu, or a more serious disease? It's impossible to say definitively how long your starving, weakened, diseased body would hold out, but death would be knocking.

Such is the state of our coral reefs today. The triple threat of coral bleaching (which causes starvation), higher prevalence of disease and more acid in the ocean (inhibiting corals' skeletal growth) calls into question how long our reefs can continue to survive. Or, at least how long they’ll look as we envision them in our Jacques Cousteau-inspired imaginations: gorgeous orange and yellow fans waving beside barrels of purple and bowls of blue, with Nemo and friends darting throughout the nooks and crannies that house the crustaceans we order at Red Lobster.

We must remember the brooding fact that this ecosystem’s decline contributes to ours as well—unless we act. The public needs better media reporting and guidance to address the problem; we lack both at the moment, but both can be remedied.

Thousands of miles of coral reefs are starving; many will recover, but in their weakened state, they’ll become more susceptible to the diseases proliferating as sea surface temperatures rise. Since coral is, literally, the bedrock of marine ecosystems, this situation signals trouble for oceanic life and people.

Coral reef degradation is the proverbial canary in the coalmine. Not because reefs themselves will vanish one day but because the ways global warming, pollution and habitat destruction are affecting the reefs forewarn of the changes that will eventually reach our backyards—literally. Yet the complexity of these problems makes it a struggle for scientists to pinpoint what will happen first, when, where and how. It's like playing Whack-a-Mole on a football field littered with land mines.

"As you remove certain portions of the coral reef environment, the rippling effect starts occurring and before long some species, whether we like them on our dinner table or in our aquarium, will start disappearing," said Billy Causey, Southeast Regional Director of NOAA Office of Marine Sanctuaries. "In 50 years, we're going to be in serious trouble if we don't make some changes. We're going to see losses in coastal and marine environments, perhaps, even failures in fisheries stocks and so on."

Those losses translate into economic casualties as well. Ross Hill, a marine biologist at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, quoted one study that puts the number of people worldwide directly or indirectly relying on coral reefs at 500 million. That's half a billion people who could lose their livelihoods. While dying coral reefs might feel remote in the dead of a Minnesota winter, the worldwide financial collapse of 2007 painfully revealed how interconnected the economies of our world now are. The ripple effects of an economic crisis in a nation like Fiji—surrounded by coral reefs—matter to us in the U.S.

"You don't want the millions of people who live in low-lying areas of the tropics to end up as ecological refugees as the coral reefs die and the income from tourism and their food disappears," said Judy Lang, the Scientific Coordinator of the Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment Project.

Yet potentially irrevocable changes in coral reefs could lead to these consequences if we don't address the causes of coral bleaching, disease and ocean acidification. With the situation so dire, why isn't the message getting across? And what can we, many of us far from a coastline much less a reef, do about it?

The first answer is twofold: one, the media does a poor job of explaining what's really going on and what to do about it; two, it's hard to motivate people about issues so seemingly remote, in both miles and years. Reporters must clearly explain what's causing the degradation of our coral reefs and why it matters.

Let's start with causes: 99 percent of marine and climate scientists agree the number one cause of all three attacks on coral reefs is climate change from increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But as Ray Hayes, a member of the Global Coral Reef Alliance Executive Board and Professor Emeritus of Howard University College of Medicine, points out, "To look at elevated temperature as a sole causative agent [of bleaching] would be a mistake." Additional stresses on coral include land-based sources of pollution, habitat loss and overfishing.

Meanwhile, the ocean has been absorbing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it into carbonic acid, weakening the ability of corals, crustaceans and mollusks to build their skeletons and shells. The cumulative effect on the reef resembles our own bodies' reaction to excessive stress: "The corals are overly stressed and diseases start breaking out," Causey explained. Indeed, diseases have proliferated in the past forty years, according to Lang.

"Bleaching," so named because the coral turns bright white, occurs when stressed coral expels the food-producing algae that contribute to its vibrant colors. Increased water temperature can trigger bleaching: coral-algae symbiosis flourishes in 78 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit; even a few degrees higher can spark a bleaching event. Sustained bleaching is essentially starvation, during which coral halts all inessential biological processes, including reproduction and skeleton-building, to conserve energy. Too often, bleached coral dies, and within hours brown, green and red algae grow over its skeleton, potentially preventing coral re-growth and, irrevocably, altering the reef environment.

"Coral reefs are nurseries for a number of economically significant seafood sources, such as lobsters and crabs and shrimp," Hayes said. "All those organisms we think of as being nutritionally supportive to a human population could be at risk as the reefs change."

In 1998, during the worst worldwide bleaching event on record, sixteen percent of the world's shallow-water reefs died. During another bad bleaching event in 2005, 80 percent of Caribbean coral bleached and as much as 40 percent died in the eastern Caribbean. According to Tom Goreau, president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, 2010 was the hottest year in history—and one of the worst coral bleaching years ever. Goreau said he watched almost all the corals in Thailand die over the course of a few weeks.

Again, where are the screaming headlines to wake people up?

First, it's hard to personalize something like bleaching that’s only visible underwater at certain times of the year. Ocean acidification, Causey points out, presents a tougher hurdle: "We're not going to see ocean chemistry changes; we're just going to see the results after it's almost too late."

Kris Wilson, an environmental journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said reporters must "transcend the journalism of proximity," a major factor in what gets reported. "A journalist has to take something abstract and bring it to a level to feel it's a part of their readers' lives," he said.

For example, telling readers about drugs like Ziconotide—a cone shell product recently approved as a non-addictive painkiller and used to treat Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and epilepsy—emphasizes the value of oceanic ecosystems. "A whole heap of medicines come out of animals that live on reefs," said Hill.

Yet, said Lang, we exacerbate the hazards reefs face with our high-energy consumption and with waste ranging from pharmaceuticals and fertilizers to household products and caffeine.

Another flaw in coral reef reportage arises from fundamental differences between scientific thinking and journalistic storytelling. The scientific method requires scientists to accept uncertainty in much of what they do; even gravity is still a theory.

"Science is long-term, incremental, always evolving," Wilson said. "Scientists are very cautious about their findings." But reporters and readers often want certainty and immediacy—rarely compatible with an issue like climate change. "We have to become comfortable with a certain level of uncertainty and still be willing to act," Wilson said.

According to Causey, this culture clash even affects how scientists talk to reporters. "It makes them reluctant sometimes because they think it's going to taint their scientific credentials if they go beyond what is or is not certain," he said. "We can't remain in stalemate because people are afraid of speaking beyond what they're certain of."

Most regrettably, however, reporters often leave readers feeling powerless: artificial he-said-she-said stories belie scientific consensus on the issue, or reporters sound doomsday trumpets without informing readers how to take action.

A reliance on "objectivity" over "balance" can distort how readers understand an issue. "Objectivity," the classic "he-said-and-she-disagreed" model Wilson describes, only presents two opposing points of view on a topic. "Balance" puts those views in context, quantifying and qualifying the voices on both sides.

Wilson adds that context is essential. "If a person is an outlier," he said, "you're obligated to tell readers the weight of his opinions." Wilson points out that prominent global warming skeptic Patrick Michaels receives funding from Western Fuels Association—this doesn't invalidate his opinions but it's essential to disclose.

"The more information people have, the more they realize these stories impact them, the more they'll hopefully become involved," he said. "Good environmental reporting has the potential to improve public policy and get people to understand their role in the environment and that they can really make a difference."

Of course, people must want to make a difference. "Most people are very myopic," Hayes said. "They see what's right in front of them and respond to the immediate situation and not to something that might be in the distance or somebody else's problem as they see it."

But time for them to notice is running out.

"What's happening to coral reefs is a preview of what's going to happen on a much larger scale," said Causey. "People need to recognize that although this may be happening in the tropics right now, it's not long before it's going to happen here. The coral reefs are symptomatic of the bigger climate change problems."

Hill adds that we must understand our place in the world. "We need to realize that humans are part of the global ecosystem, not above it and not immune to the effects we have on it," he said. He quoted Jacques Cousteau: "For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it."

Contributor’s Biography Tara Haelle is a photojournalism graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin and a high school journalism teacher at Texas Virtual Academy. A freelance writer and photographer in over two dozen publications, she primarily reports on health and environmental issues. As an avid scuba diver, she has a special place in her heart for sharks and coral reefs.

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