John Bruno: “My depressing summers in Belize”

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John Bruno, a marine ecologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, shares “depressing” news (with a tiny sliver of a silver lining) about the present and future of coral reefs in the “Opinion” section of The New York Times’s Sunday Review (6 July 2017). 

When summer arrives, my friends and family inevitably roll their eyes when I tell them I’m packing for my fieldwork in the Caribbean. They picture a book and a white-sand beach. I do get a tan. But it’s no vacation.

I study ocean ecosystems. The work is chronically underfunded, so food and housing is basic or worse. When we’re in Belize monitoring the health of coral reefs, about half the nights we sleep under the stars on a dock. When I can afford a roach- and gecko-infested room, it’s often so rustic that it’s preferable to sleep outside.

There are also the tropical diseases we acquire (dengue, for instance), the insects that lay eggs under our skin (bot flies), stinging jellyfish, scorpions hiding in our shoes and, of course, feisty sea turtles (on one trip an enormous loggerhead turtle bit one of my graduate students on the rear). [. . .]

Like many of my peers, I’ve walked away from the type of purely basic academic science I was trained to do to focus on trying to understand and slow the rapid changes underway in ocean ecosystems. My team has been working on determining whether protection from fishing and pollution in well-policed marine reserves can moderate or reverse the loss of Caribbean corals, the small invertebrate animals that build up reefs over thousands of years.

Since 2009 we’ve been annually surveying 16 reefs across the Belizean Barrier Reef, half of which are inside a protected reserve. We typically survey two reefs a day, filming the seafloor with video cameras and counting and identifying every fish in 100-foot-long bands.

Unfortunately, we’ve found local conservation is ineffective in stopping coral loss. Dozens of other studies around the world have reported the same finding. [. . .]

Despite all the loss and the looming threats, there is still so much left to conserve. Like the amazingly healthy Orbicella coral reefs I saw in the crystal-clear waters of the Bay of Pigs, Cuba, a few years ago, and the staghorn coral reefs within swimming distance of the beachfront hotels of Fort Lauderdale that are now threatened by an Army Corps of Engineers dredging project. There are also a few reefs at higher latitudes or in other lucky locations that are warming much more slowly and could hold out for decades or centuries.

I really don’t know how this will all turn out. Corals and other creatures could adapt to their changing environments. People could radically reduce their carbon emissions. Yet both outcomes are unlikely, and reality is draining my ocean optimism. It isn’t too late, but we need to act very soon.

For full article, see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/06/opinion/sunday/belize-caribbean-coral-reefs.html

[Photo above: The Belize Barrier Reef. Credit: Pete Oxford/Minden Pictures, via Getty Images.]

 

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