Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pristine reefs, shifting baselines, isolation, and the value of vibrancy

A blog of Bridge Environment, updated most Thursdays

A remote atoll in the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, Colombia
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the crisis facing coral reefs, and described the social and ecological costs that came with the development of San Salvador Island, Bahamas. As promised, this week I will reassure you that some reefs are still awe-inspiring even to jaded ecologists like me and I will also provide some insight into keeping them that way.

There are numerous reefs that still feel wild and untamed to me. I have worked for many years on environmental regulations for the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, at 65,000 sq. km (25,000 sq. mi) the largest marine protected area in the Caribbean. The Biosphere Reserve encompasses a chain of islands and banks, only a few of which are inhabited, with extensive coral reefs. On an expedition to the northern banks, I had the experience of seeing the reef crest of Quitasueño, marked not by visible reef but by a museum-worthy collection of shipwrecks stretching for miles. The remoteness of much of the Biosphere Reserve helps to reduce the effects of human activities, although there are still problems associated with global warming, coral diseases, and industrial-scale fishing. Nevertheless, these reefs rank near the top among those that I have visited in the Caribbean for healthy coral growth, despite the many shipwrecks.

Reefs in the Pacific offer more pristine promise than ones in the Caribbean because corals, which literally form the foundation of the ecosystem, have been less severely affected by disease and warming waters. This is especially true of branching corals, which provide essential shelter for fish and a matrix for growth of the entire reef. In the Pacific, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are candidates for pristine status. These remote islands stretch for thousands of kilometers beyond the main, inhabited Hawaiian Islands. They are part of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which at 362,000 sq. km (nearly 140,000 sq. mi) is the largest conservation area in the US on land or at sea, and one of the largest marine protected areas in the world. Though I have not personally visited these islands, I have an ongoing research project there with Dr. Alan Friedlander of the University of Hawaii. Dr. Friedlander is the most widely traveled coral reef ecologist I know, and he considers the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands’ fish populations to be among the healthiest he has ever seen.

The most vibrant Pacific coral reefs I have seen personally were those fringing the beach of Tanjung Karang, just north of Donggala, Indonesia. When I visited in 1996, there were two resorts on opposite ends of a beautiful white sand beach. Though these reefs were not in a densely populated part of the world, they also were not isolated. In addition to the two resorts, there was a town in the middle of the beach and locals relied heavily on fishing for sustenance. At the time of my visit, the health of the reefs on the eastern side of the beach resulted from a business investment by the owner of the Prince John Dive Resort. He paid the local community not to fish in front of his property and hired locals to patrol the beach and enforce the restrictions. As a result of the fantastic snorkeling and of the good feeling visitors associated with the protected reef, he was able to charge about $5 more per guest per night than his competition to the west and still attract more travelers. Given the prevailing wages in rural Indonesia at the time, I am pretty sure he more than made up for his investment.

Though the Indonesian reef was awe-inspiring, with corals growing up nearly to the tideline and housing an incredibly diverse array of fish and invertebrates, it was most likely not pristine. The no-fishing arrangement was relatively new and the area was small enough that it couldn’t be expected to sustain the larger members of the ecosystem. Similarly, coral disease and other effects of global warming, in concert with industrial fishing, had undoubtedly degraded the reefs in the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve long before I laid eyes on them. And yet those reefs give me a greater sense of pristine wilderness than I suspect I would have if I revisited San Salvador, Bahamas, even though its reefs are probably less affected by human activity.

Back in 1995, Dr. Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia named this phenomenon the shifting baseline syndrome, where we perceive the condition of an area (or a fishery) relative to its health when we first observed it. This syndrome can lead us to believe that our environment is healthy when in fact it has slowly but dramatically degraded, much like the anecdote that a frog, which would otherwise avoid boiling water, will stay if the water is heated sufficiently gradually. Because of shifting baseline syndrome, I am suspect of a new visitor’s tendency to believe a reef like San Salvador is pristine, just as I am suspect of my own reaction to the reefs of the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve. I do trust the opinion of experts like Dr. Friedlander because of his worldly perspective. For the most part, though, judging pristine is a scientific undertaking and invariably subject to differing opinions and general uncertainty. Even among experts, judgment has to be methodical since the vibrancy of the pristine state of coral reefs will vary a lot based on local environmental and biogeographic conditions.

Historical sources can help us with the challenge of judging pristine. I contributed to a chapter of a forthcoming book called Marine Historical Ecology in Conservation: Applying the Past to Manage for the Future, edited by Jack Kittinger, Loren McClenachan, Keryn Gedan, and Louise Blight. My chapter, co-authored by Dr. Friedlander and Haruko Koike, explores possibilities of using historical data for perspective in evaluating the current health of fish stocks. In other chapters, similar techniques are proposed to evaluate the health of entire coral reef ecosystems.

My review of relatively pristine reefs provides some insight into the causes of degradation and some possible solutions. The most obvious characteristic of most of these reefs is their isolation. Unfortunately, technology is making it easier to visit even extremely remote areas, and therefore raising a conflict between the existence value of pristine coral reefs and their use value. Economic conditions may still provide some protection for remote areas, though. In work with Martha Prada, Erick Castro, Lucy Alvarez Bustillo, and several other Colombian colleagues, I have been able to show that expensive fuel and depressed demand for lobster during the world recession dampened effort to catch lobster in and surrounding the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve. The economic conditions have improved, however, and fishing pressure is sure to increase without tighter regulations. Since isolation adds a whole suite of challenges to the enforcement of regulations, we also need to look at better protection of less isolated reefs. In this regard, the Indonesian reef described here offers some promise. If people are so inspired by healthy coral reefs that they are willing to pay extra to visit them, we have the option of charging them for the privilege and using the proceeds to constructively involve the local community.


For more information, read our other blog posts and visit us at Bridge Environment.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Altruism and optimism, the antidotes to terrorism

A blog of Bridge Environment, updated most Thursdays

To the Boston Terrorist(s),

You may be feeling smug right now, after detonating two bombs in Boston that killed three and injured over 100 more. I know the reaction you are trying to generate. I study how people perceive and respond to uncertainty, and your efforts definitely take advantage of these tendencies in us.

Not familiar with the details? I’m not surprised. You are actually being short-sided about human nature, only accounting for part of it. Let me go over those details with you. In addition to teaching you that people are less easily manipulated than you think, the details will also give readers of this letter to you a sense of hope. I love my work in part because of the hope it provides me and others.

People have two gut reactions to uncertainty: denial and overreaction. In general, denial is healthy…who would want to spend their waking hours (or worse, sleeping ones) worrying about everything that might go wrong. It turns out that Murphy’s Law is just plain wrong. So many things could go wrong, but few actually do. We only have so much time, energy, and resources to devote to averting problems. If we worried about every possibility, we would spend our lives stressed and broke, and still be unable to prevent bad things from happening. Fortunately, most risks pass by unnoticed or appreciated.

When it does occur, overreaction can be a problem. In the US, tens of thousands of people die from car crashes and gun violence each year. Yet we are much more afraid of dying in a plane crash, particularly at the hands of terrorists like you. Though they do so without your malice, sharks also play on our fear of the unknown and have a prominent place in our nightmares despite only killing a few people a year worldwide. Because of our tendency to freak out about rare events, we do not always have our priorities right. In this way, you terrorists can sometimes push us into sacrificing key resources, including our own liberty, to calm the irrational fear you generate. That’s your ultimate victory, right…to tear down our way of life, or better yet, to prompt us to tear it apart ourselves?

You won’t win, though. Counterbalancing the human tendency towards terror are optimism and altruism. Optimism is tightly tied to our ability to ignore uncertainty as described above. Altruism, the act of giving of ourselves to help others, is a fascinating phenomenon. It challenges the simplified view of evolution. How could a gene evolve to help others at the helpers expense, since individuals with the helper gene would be less likely to survive and would instead be helping the competition? Yet altruism is undeniable. Beehives, termite mounds, and naked mole rat colonies are all examples of eusociality, where most individuals give up reproduction in order to support the king, queen, and their offspring. Evolutionary biologists believe that genetics play a key role in eusociality, since individuals are sacrificing to help their close relatives who are likely to share the helper gene. Similar examples can be found in some birds, which will sometimes help their parents or sibling if they are unable to have babies themselves in a given year. Not all altruism is directed at family, though. Vampire bats live in colonies and require a blood meal every couple of days to avoid starvation. It is common for full bats returning to the colony to regurgitate food to the hungry, not all of whom are relatives. A mechanism that might explain this phenomenon is that these bats are able to recognize each other, and ones that do not share are ostracized from the colony. Thus, vampire bat altruism may simply be a form of enlightened self-interest.

We humans, however, present far more dramatic examples of altruism. Terrorist attacks bring out the very best of these. Mr. Rogers, a beloved television character, said it well:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Indeed, in the footage of the detonation of your bombs and the immediate aftermath, we see many people rushing towards the noise, smoke, and chaos. Mind you, those running away were not showing signs of overreaction to the possibility of additional bombs. Their response was pretty reasonable. The helpers were the remarkable ones. Their optimism and altruism put a major dent in your plans.

As much as their efforts to help the injured and vulnerable make them heroes, they deserve at least as much credit for the example they set by not letting your strategy work. The damage you do in deaths and injuries, though tragic and significant to the individuals who have suffered directly from your attack, pales in comparison with the number of deaths and injuries that occur during our daily lives from a wide range of less terror-provoking causes, such as disease and accidents. The real threat you pose is the fear you create and its ability to cloud our judgment on priorities. That is why we call you terrorists.

Thanks to the helpers, the ones who push back their fear and run to help others, your strategy is doomed. Altruism and optimism are alive and well. Mr. Rogers’ mother was right…you will always find people who are helping. Their selfless sacrifices serve as an example to counteract your entire strategy.


For more information, read our other blog posts and visit us at Bridge Environment.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

An homage to San Salvador, Bahamas, circa 1990, and a warning about coral reefs in general

A blog of Bridge Environment, updated most Thursdays

I have discussed previously the environmental importance of the typical ways people react to uncertainty: denial and overreaction. Overreactions have earned environmentalists a reputation for being Chicken Little, constantly claiming that the sky is falling. There are many reasons why I believe that most environmental issues are better served by a calm rational consideration of problems and their potential solutions. One of the reasons I am against “the sky is falling” rhetoric is that it detracts from pleas when there really is a crisis. Even in a case like climate change, where the consequences may be dire, I urge calm and reasoned consideration of the relative risks, costs, and benefits. When it comes to coral reefs, though, the sky really is falling.

Living Acropora cervicornis, on San Andrés, Colombia
Numerous scientific surveys have evaluated the condition of coral reefs globally, and all are pretty depressing. Corals themselves have suffered an onslaught of stressors. In the 1980s, white band disease decimated the Caribbean populations of two branching corals, Acropora palmata and A. cervicornis, which had previously made major contributions to reef growth and the supply of shelter. We have seen patchy and modest recovery in recent years, yet many Caribbean reefs look dead to those of us who can recognize living coral. We see that the major source of structure is dead colonies that are gradually eroding. Also in the 1980s, the coral-eating crown-of-thorns-starfish, Acanthaster planci, began to show outbreaks around the tropical Pacific in which they ate their way through many reefs. Concurrently, coral bleaching, in which the energy suppliers for corals are ejected/leave as a result of stress, also became widespread world-wide. On top of these stressors, some fishing communities began to resort to destructive fishing practices such as the use of dynamite or harmful chemicals. Overfishing has also resulted, at least in places, in ecological imbalances that favor algal growth over coral. Though there remains uncertainty about the complex ecology of coral reefs and the specific causes of certain forms of degradation, there is no uncertainty about the status of reefs: they are in trouble.

In the 1980s, when I was a marine ecology student, most professors in the field avoided environmental issues. In fact, I was chastised by the faculty in my graduate program for my “applied” interests, and I used to joke with my friends that the key to success was finding the most irrelevant research topic possible. Now, many marine ecologists have made efforts to help with environmental issues. When I have asked them why they changed their attitude, the decimation of a favorite coral reef is often the answer.

Though it did not contribute to my motivation to work on environmental issues, I also saw favorite reefs become degraded. The story of the reefs around San Salvador serves as an example of the modern-day struggles of development. When I started working there, in 1990, the island was home to about 300 locals. One paved road circled the island, interrupted by a single major intersection—between the road and the airport runway—with a sign warning drivers to look for planes before crossing. Locals were poor. Few had jobs, and most traveled on foot or bicycle. Most, it seemed, got by on an extensive home garden, a goat, and a little government assistance. At that time, the island hosted a single small dive resort and a modest and lightly used marine field station. In contrast to the sparse simplicity of the human dimension of the island, the marine life set my standard for pristine. Reefs had live coral overgrowing live coral. Fish were a riot of color and activity, including particularly conspicuous populations of Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) and a wide variety of sharks. In most of the Caribbean, Nassau grouper have been overfished, to the point that they were identified in 1996 as a threatened species by the World Conservation Union. These large striped and spotted brown fish were everywhere along San Salvador’s reef drops, and so unaffected by people that they would follow me around on my dives, ever curious to see what I was doing. Sharks were so plentiful that I’d see them more dives than not, and I stuck to land-based sources of exercise in lieu of my normal afternoon swim. In fact, the sharks had made such an impression on locals that virtually all of them were afraid to go in the water under any circumstances. There was a single full-time fisherman on the island, and another who reluctantly fished when festivals were coming up.

Columbus caught on live webcam, San Salvador, Bahamas, 1492
In 1990, change was in the air. San Salvador had already undergone some change. It had been called Watlings Island for years. In 1925, after studying Christopher Columbus’s journals with care, scholars decided that this island was where he first made landfall in the Americas. Columbus had christened it San Salvador and thus the name returned.

Given that he made that landfall in 1492, 1992 was a year of much pomp and circumstance. The Bahamian government issued new money, with pictures of Columbus’s voyage interspersed with pictures of endangered Bahamian wildlife. But the biggest change taking place was the construction of a Club Med. In an effort to capitalize on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall (and the pristine natural beauty), the Bahamian government and Club Med had made arrangements to build a large resort on the island. I can’t confirm this fact, but believe it has capacity for about 400 guests…on an island that had a population of about 300. As part of the effort to capitalize on Columbus’s legacy, they named the resort Columbus Isle, and many people now know San Salvador by that name.

I continued my fieldwork there while the resort was under construction. During that time, there were really depressing community meetings. The Bahamian government had sold the locals on the resort with the idea that it would result in cars and televisions for them. It had apparently not been so clear that the resort was going to require lots of local resources and only offer low-wage service sector employment for the locals. I heard many of them complaining about the hospitality classes that they were offered to groom them for work, comparing the lessons to teachings of how to be a servant.

Though many locals did not see it, the effects on marine environments were also dramatic. I had one gorgeous research site, a field of soft corals growing in a few feet of water just offshore. It went from literally sparkling in the sunlight to being covered in refuse overnight when the garbage emanating from the construction site finally drifted that far. In my final days there, representatives for Club Med came out for site visits and started recreationally fishing. Though I did not return after that trip, I got reports from others that the fish populations were never the same.

Is San Salvador still a beautiful place to visit? Apparently so. It still has a remarkably abundant fish population for a Caribbean coral reef according to my sources. However, it will never again be the pristine reef I saw back in 1990.

Next week I will discuss some reefs that are still wondrous, even to a jaded coral reef biologist such as myself. I will also go into more details about the threats they face and the challenges in addressing them. In the meantime, please keep in mind that reefs truly are in crisis.


For more information, read our other blog posts and visit us at Bridge Environment.