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.


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