The Corner

Coral Reefs Adapt, So Should Humans

Promising news in the wake of reports that coral reefs could die due to global warming:

Leopards may not be able to change their spots, but corals can change their skeletons, building them out of different minerals depending on the chemical composition of the seawater around them.

That’s the startling conclusion drawn by a Johns Hopkins University marine geologist, writing in the July issue of the journal Geology.

Postdoctoral fellow Justin Ries and his collaborators say this is the first known case of an animal altering the composition of its skeleton in response to change in its physical environment. The aquatic animal’s sensitivity to such changes poses questions about its evolutionary history, as well as the future of the ecologically important coral reefs that it builds, Ries said, especially at a time when seawater is changing in response to global warming and the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Me: I doubt this will put concerns to rest. Nor should it. One of the points I always concede to environmentalists in debates is that the oceans are being over-fished — one reason I’m such a supporter of fish-farming. When I first read the news that the oceans are becoming too acidic for coral reefs due to global warming, I was skeptical to a certain extent for the usual reasons. But, more to the point, it reminded me of my longtime hope that the West invest more in building artificial reefs. I’m in no way shape or form exceptionally informed on the subject. But my friend Ronald Bailey (science correspondent for Reason) is a big booster of artificial reefs and he persuaded me a long time ago that we should be encouraging the construction of man-made fish habitats. The key to making them work, of course, is ensuring property rights and the like. Regardless of whether global warming is a major or minor threat to fisheries, the fact remains that fisheries could use a shot in the arm fin. If global warming is threatening them, all the more reason we should make fake ones.

Here’s a useful piece Ron wrote on the subject a while back.

Update: A reader asks if I’m not missing the point. Wouldn’t the loss of reefs be bad in and of itself in terms of biodiversity and whatnot? Aren’t I missing the point?

Not really, say I. Losing coral would be bad in and of itself, but the real threat is from losing it as a keystone species. At least from what I’ve read, reefs are vital habitats, spawning grounds etc for many fish stocks. Lose ‘em and we’d be in real trouble. Conversely, if we had more of them, we’d be better off. So, I say, make more. They may not be as good as the real thing, but they’re better than sand.  

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