Roger Bradbury’s recent op-ed in The New York Times arguing that coral reefs are doomed globally has had the coral reef science community abuzz for the last week. Bradbury’s piece is somewhere between a surrender flag and a suicide note for conservation. For him, overfishing, pollution and climate change have already turned most reefs into “zombie ecosystems,” and marine conservationists who are working to save them are just merchants of false hope. He argues that we should take the resources we’re now putting into coral research and protection and divert them into figuring out how to engineer new synthetic underwater systems to support the fish and countless other ocean organisms that depend on coral…not to mention the hundreds of millions of people worldwide that depend on those organisms.
To someone not acquainted with recent coral reef science, Bradbury’s arguments appear to have a ring of truth — andhe does make some superficially valid points. The threats to reefs today are severe and growing. Caribbean reefs are a shadow of what they were a few decades ago, and many other reefs globally are changing.
But Bradbury is dead wrong that we should abandon hope and our work — dead wrong on the science. In fact, rapidly developing scientific research in places across the globe is showing the surprising resilience and adaptability of coral reefs to changing conditions — resilience that can be boosted with proper management techniques.
I just returned from the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS), a massive scientific conference held this year in Cairns, Australia, adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef — a reef the size of the country of Italy. ICRS brought together 2,100 scientists from 82 different countries, and the science presented there made an overwhelming case for hope and solutions grounded in data.
There are thriving reefs around the world in spite of all the things people have done to them— from Curaçao to Raja Ampat to Palau. Their ability to persist in the face of global climate change is remarkable. In 1998, when the world experienced the largest ever coral bleaching event, and massive extents of corals died, some observers thought that was it for coral reefs. Yet, little by little, corals came back. What scientists and conservationists alike have been doing since is trying to understand why and how — and we are making significant strides that we can build on in our protection work.
There certainly will be winners and losers among reef ecosystems, and reefs will be different in the future than they were a few decades ago or than they are even today. The recent science on reefs has revealed new layers of complexity as corals respond to stressors — specifically, high variability in response to the stressors we are most concerned about such as warming seas and changing chemistry.
The rest here.