Warning: Reefs could be RIP in 100 years

Photo by Jan-Morten BjornbakkJames Byrne, coral reef expert.

Climate change triggers coral crisis, expert says

Coral reefs could become history within a century, according to one expert who has gathered other international experts seeking to reverse this fate.

“In 100 years, if we do nothing, the reefs will be gone,” said James Byrne, marine science program manager for The Nature Conservancy and a lead organizer of this week’s Reef Resilience Conference in Fort Lauderdale. He said reefs “are declining around the world, and the threats are increasing constantly.”

Byrne estimates that 20 percent of coral reefs are healthy and 80 percent are in decline. While colleagues are discussing various means to abate this downward trend, they agree with the biggest threat.

“Climate change is the gorilla that is pushing down on everything,” said Byrne. Warming oceans damage corals when a temperature threshold is crossed and the corals bleach, meaning they lose the algae that give them color. Although corals can recover from bleaching, disease may get them first.

Major bleaching episodes in the Caribbean occurred in 1987 and 1997, and Byrne says that in recent years they have become annual events that bleach upwards of 15 percent of corals.

Byrne has been working on reef conservation issues for nearly 20 years, and he has witnessed changes as a diver near Summerland Key, where he is based. He is in agreement with the assessment of another diver who has observed the reefs since 1968.

“It breaks my heart,” said Billy Causey, regional director of the National Marine Sanctuary Program, who has been a reef manager in the Florida Keys since 1983. Causey was one of eight experts speaking at the conference, organized by The Nature Conservancy, during a media panel convened in conjunction with the Society of Environmental Journalists, which meets in Miami this week. Scientists on the panel tended to be cautious in predicting the fate of coral reefs.

The moderator of the panel was Jeff Burnside, a Miami television reporter and a co-chair of the Society of Environmental Journalists first global conference in Miami. It  opens formally Wednesday evening at the Inter-Continental Miami in Bayfront Park with a splash of high-level Washington officials, ocean experts and stars of the literary and academic worlds.  The others posing questions to the experts were also members of the Society of Environmental Journalists:  Angela Posada-Swafford, the other chair of the conference and a writer for Muy Interesante magazine in Spain;  Catalina Arevalo, a reporter for the Spanish news agency EFE; Curtis Morgan of the Miami Herald and Joseph B. Treaster, the editor of The Miami Planet.

In addition to the global threat of warming oceans, reefs face localized threats in terms of overfishing, diminishing water quality due to pollution and physical damage caused by boats and ships. As the reef degrades, the fish move out, although the order could be a chicken-and-egg situation.

Byrne compares the fate of reefs over the past 30 years to a burst real estate bubble. The condos and hotels being built by corals have declined to the point where fish do not want to move in. The corals that remain become covered by algae, and that type of real estate does not “sell” to new corals looking to attach onto a secure location.

Algae blankets reef structures when the water quality is low and fish populations are out of balance. Parrotfish, for example, eat algae and even chomp through living coral, giving new coral a secure place to land. Without such animals grazing on the reef, the ecosystem slowly collapses.

Unlike fish populations, which can rebound in less than a decade, coral reefs require centuries to recover, and Byrne says we must help accelerate their growth. He says current management misses the big picture by focusing on local threats.

“We’re buying time by addressing local threats and giving coral time to adapt to climate change,” says Byrne.

The Florida Reef Resilience Program started in 2004 as a collaboration of state officials with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. It expanded to include nonprofit organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, universities and government agencies from the city to the federal level.

This month the program released a new guide of best practices for restoring Caribbean staghorn corals, one of the two corals in the United States that are listed as threatened. Its second meeting is the official workshop of the concurrent 26th meeting of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. These conferences bring together scientists and regulators to figure out how to preserve coral reefs before they disappear. The media panel raised as many questions as it answered.

“You’ll always find sites that are healthy,” say Byrne. “So the question becomes, why?”

Scientists have studied corals for about half a century, following the advent of scuba diving, but they may have only twice that long before there is nothing left to study. #

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One response to “Warning: Reefs could be RIP in 100 years”

  1. Amanda Tienjaroonkul says:

    Interesting story with a lot of relevence to the Florida area. It conveyed the immediacy of the issue and the importance of reefs to marine life.