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Grief on the coral reef

POSTED 21 SEPTEMBER 2006

Crowbar vs. coral
As we've seen, local action can harm or help coral reefs. In places that are short of resources, reefs are often mined for building material. In the South Pacific nation of Fiji, chunks of algae-covered coral are exported to the aquarium trade. This "live rock" is coated with organisms that filter nasties from saltwater aquariums, where coral-reef fish live in a simulated coral reef.

map shows location of Fiji located east of Australia and north of New ZealandFiji, a Polynesian nation in the South Pacific, still has good reefs. How long will they last?

Fiji was a top exporter of live rock, says Terry Snell, a professor of biology at Georgia Tech. "They were taking live rock from the reef, were breaking off pieces of the reef with crowbars. Obviously this was not a sustainable practice." Ironically, a product for promoting the health of glassed-in environments was harming the health of the wild environment that the hobbyists were emulating.

Fiji' "fringing reef" stretches out from the beach, protecting itself and the beach from waves. "If you start ripping up the reef, and have wave action on the reef flat, that can accelerate erosion in a very serious way," says Snell.

These donuts are healthy!
Snell got involved in an alternative to crowbars through a search for drugs derived from reef organisms sponsored by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The process of natural drug discovery is a search for the chemical defenses that protect organisms against the daily dose of predators. Fungi that naturally fight bacteria, for example, are the source of most medical antibiotics. Given the biological complexity of reef environments, it's natural to expect that they contain a wealth of medicinal chemicals.

But the years needed to derive a drug from an organism can be wasted if the source organism goes extinct in the meantime, Snell notes. Three smiling men sit on a thatch mat in a simply adorned room in the South Pacific"If you want to go back and collect at the site, and it's healthy, you will be able to find these organisms again, so there is quite a high level of interest in conservation and developing sustainable practices for using the marine resources," he says.

Kirk Bowman and Terry Snell of Georgia Tech, talk reef conservation with Chief Ratu Timoci Batireregu, leader of the Fijian village of Tagaqe. Courtesy Terry Snell

But when a gang of overeducated outsiders enters a village to push their conservationist brainstorms, the law of unintended consequences is often the only reliable guide to the future. Fortunately, in Fiji, the outsiders were interested in reaching a goal that local people had already adopted, Snell says. "A number of villages, on their own, had decided they did not want to harvest their reefs with crowbars."

These donuts are healthy
One Fiji live-rock exporter had experimented with artificial coral made from pumice and cement, Snell says. "It seems to fulfill the functions of live rock; it's just as good as actual live rock, and it looks esthetically pleasing," he says.

Using money from the NIH drug-discovery project, Snell and his colleagues "put together a deal" with the village, live-rock exporter (Walt Smith International, and the University of the South Pacific. The researchers spent $1,900 on artificial rock -- actually cement donuts -- which they donated to the villagers, who anchored the donuts to the reef. After eight months, the blanks were naturally "encrusted with invertebrates, sponges, algae, and were suitable to be shipped off to aquarists around the world."

The first batch of live rock has been sold for $3,800, and per contract, half the income was spent on more cement donuts. The other half was distributed to the village, Snell says. "That's a lot of money if you are basically living on subsistence farming and gathering on the reef," he says.

Two men guide a small boat made of sticks in shallow waters.  Boat is full of seaweed-covered rock
Villager harvest artificial live rock in Fiji. Photo: Make Liku Movono, courtesy University of the South Pacific

Although the researchers are talking with more three more villages about expanding the project, nobody claims that such a small-scale effort can, for example, reverse coral bleaching due to global warming. But Snell says the project has raised consciousness about protecting the reef. "Once you have people on the ground who are the guardians of the reef, all kind of other things can happen." he says. "They say, 'Maybe we should move our pigpens, so they have some filtration before the waste hits the tidal stream. Maybe we should think about how we apply pesticide to our cassava plants.' All these things occur to them that had not occurred before."

The key, Snell says, "is to get the people who are resident in the areas where the reefs are, to figure out ways to use the resources in a sustainable way, not to overfish, not to break up the reef, not to dump raw sewage. If you give people some economic incentive to do this, as this program does, they will act in ways that are preservative of the reef."

Drowning in trouble
It's tough to discuss the global decline of reefs without getting a bit depressed; coral is collapsing virtually around the globe. A 2002 report, for example, said that "corals on approximately 16 percent of the world's coral reefs were effectively destroyed during the major El Nino and La Nina climate change events of 1997-98."

We asked some experts about coral's prospects, and their comments were guarded. "I don't think the future is that bleak in every place," says Snell. "The Caribbean, in general, is worse than the South Pacific. In Fiji, there are some wonderful reefs that are still healthy. With proper management, they have a chance."

speckled, striped fish with long snout, broken coral on ocean floor
A File fish swims over broken coral off the coast of Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles. Courtesy ©L.G. Medaris, Jr.

Even though destructive forces like overfishing and global warming are tough to control, Snell says they are no excuse for passivity. "You start with one thing at a time, and try to do something that local people can buy into. If the locals don't buy in, you don't have a chance, but if they do, they are going to take steps that may be painful -- like limiting fishing -- that will have a big impact on the reef," he says.

Joan Kleypas, a reef export at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and an author of the 2004 Pew report (see "Coral Reefs and Global Climate Change ..." in the bibliography), says that even though climate change is moving in the wrong direction, other factors should be considered. "So many of the threats are intertwined," she says. "We forget that if we can reduce the stress on a reef due to sedimentation or overfishing, when that reef bleaches, it will have a better chance of recovery. I don't think reefs are all going to go belly up. We can't deny that we will lose more reefs ... but there will always be some reefs, somewhere ..."

The way we talk about coral reefs matters, Kleypas says. "If you give a doomsday story ... people kind of give up on them," she says. "I find people respond to hope. Don't just say, 'If we don't do something, they will die.' Say, 'If we do this, it will make the reefs better.' We have to find out what they need so they can survive climate change."

Snorkel over to our reef bibliography.

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