Coral Reef Meltdown

(Published at Counterpunch.com)  The past few days I’ve been thinking about Dr. James Speth’s call for “civic unreasonableness” and NASA’s Dr. James Hansen’s appeal for scientists to drop “objectivity” from muting their involvement, communicating to the public the impacts of global warming.


Of the canaries in the climate change coal mine, the coral reef is one of the most visible. A listserve for coral reef scientists and professionals is buzzing with comments that US government agencies and scientists have chosen to downplay, or to play only as politically acceptable, the devastation to coral reefs in Florida.

“The reef is for all practical purposes dead and a phase shift to an algal reef with soft corals has occurred.” This observation, between Florida Keys conservation activists who have spent decades in the effort to protect natural resources and the Keys coral reef tract, was made in response to ongoing, testy exchanges on the listserve reaching an international audience.

A commercial fisherman in the Keys commented: “… the reef continues to decline and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) continues to congratulate its self and give awards to others for a job well done! .. I don’t think anyone questions the passion of many of the sanctuary volunteers or SAC (sanctuary advisory committee) members, but what are they actually accomplishing? The coral continues to die off at an unprecedented rate along with the continued water quality degradation. That is not cause for celebration. Yet, the awards and self congratulations continue. The danger in this approach to management is that it attempts to make the public feel that all is well…”

And it is not just the Keys coral reef. Florida Bay is a catastrophe, obliterated by serial algae blooms passing through hundreds of square miles of shallow water like toxic clouds, yet many scientists are still picking at the scabs of scientific arguments decades old; unwilling to engage the politics of water pollution and the special interests who are offended.

Well, some say, scientists must not engage in politics.

In a statement released as part of the International Coral Reef Symposium, a gathering of hundreds of scientists and policy makers from around the world who are meeting this week in Fort Lauderdale, NOAA reports: “… nearly half of coral reef ecosystems in the United States are in poor or barely passable condition. “This is absolutely a call to action,” said NOAA Coral Program director Kacky Andrews.”

But some on the coral reef listserve angrily dismiss repetitive “calls to action” when so little has been done to stop the flood of pollution, nutrients and other human impacts on Florida Bay and the coral reef tract. They say, also, that the incessant drumbeat of the past thirty years — more science is needed– is wasted noise.

Of hundreds of thousands of human generations, ours is the first one to witness the loss of so much of the natural world. It is such a simple and remarkable point.

There is a larger context and urgency for this debate on coral reefs: the issue is no longer hard corals or soft corals or even macroalgae suffocating the base of the ocean’s food chain: it is whether or own species can avoid mass die-offs as a result of the unchallenged rise of carbon emissions to levels the planet has not experienced for tens of millions of years.

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