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 — and he 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.

To explain this variability, scientists are looking to differences between species, genetics and even differences in exposure to stress over time. For example, in 2007, McClanahan et al. found that populations that have experienced previous temperature variability are more likely to be resistant to future temperature stress. This trend was confirmed by Conservancy scientists in their analysis of bleaching response in the 2010 bleaching event that occurred across Southeast Asia.  This year, in a paper in Current Biology, Hughes et al. showed that changes in ocean conditions are more likely to result in re-assortment of species rather than wholesale loss of entire reef ecosystems. What we are learning about how reefs respond is telling us not to throw our hands up in defeat, as Bradbury has done.

At The Nature Conservancy, we are relying on the latest research to focus on tackling the challenge of protecting coral reefs at multiple scales. While our policy experts continue to look for solutions to address the ever-increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere (increasing CO2 makes the ocean more acidic — a problem for reefs and many marine organisms), our marine scientists are working on the ground in 36 countries and territories around the world on the front lines of coral protection. We’re supporting the establishment of protected area networks, working to reduce threats such as overfishing and coastal pollution, and developing the capacity of local institutions to be effective stewards of the resources they manage. Although these tactics aren’t nearly as easy as giving up and giving in to despair, they are grounded in science and pragmatism — not bad faith, as Bradbury charges.

Then we export what we learn and translate the scientific literature to management guidelines for hundreds of coral reef managers in more than 75 countries. We provide training and learning exchanges so that managers can share their innovations with peers and inspire them to overcome the inertia that many undoubtedly face as stewards of the most threatened ecosystem on the planet. And now we are setting our sights even higher: addressing the global political and economic drivers behind the local threats to coral reefs.  This year we will be engaging with the corporate and finance sectors— new stakeholders that have never been a part of the coral reef conversation — to help us identify game changing approaches to make sure coral reefs are around once we get this CO2 mess figured out.

Bradbury’s final suggestion — that we divert all funding for coral reef protection to researching and engineering a replacement for coral reefs — is absurdly impractical and in fact one of the best reasons for not giving up our present efforts. The same Ove Hoegh-Guldberg that Bradbury cites in his piece gave the last plenary of the ICRS — which, like every talk at ICRS, was chock full of depressing trends, but also reasons for optimism and calls for action.

In his talk, Ove shared a comparison he made of the cost of directly repairing (i.e., active restoring) the predicted damage done to the Great Barrier Reef with the annual cost of holding global temperature change to +2°C and CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm as per estimates derived from the 2007 IPCC 4th Assessment Report (a move, of course, that would benefit all habitats, not just coral reefs). The two costs were comparable. Think about that: Restoring just the Great Barrier Reef would cost as much as dealing with global climate change in the aggregate. How can Bradbury make that argument that replacing reefs with an engineered system could possibly be cost-effective?

I deal in the truth every day in my work at The Nature Conservancy. My job is to focus on supporting the diverse work we are doing to protect coral reef ecosystems and developing new strategies to turn the tide of rapid decline we have witnessed first hand over the last four decades. I don’t run about spouting happiness and sunshine about the state of coral reefs, nor do I have visions of grandeur that someday the reefs will flourish in abundance the way they did just a few decades ago. The reefs of the future will still provide critically important services to the people that depend on them. We know reefs are changing and, given all that we have done to them, they will be changing for the foreseeable future.

But they are not lost and will not be if we take proper action — and science is showing us the way. Abandoning hope for coral reefs not only is reckless and dangerous for those who depend on these amazing ecosystems — it is one of the most unscientific things a conservationist today could do.

[Image credit: josh-n/Flickr through a Creative Commons license]

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  1. With coral reefs around the world expelling their zooanthellae, they are not surviving with this blue green algae. Because they are a symbiotic species, they are not surviving climatic change. So they are becoming the living dead, which is being observed throughout the world.

  2. This is an excellent response to an eye-opening piece of text by Roger Bradbury. As a biologist, dive guide, and photographer I spend about six months every year in the water, mainly around the Coral Triangle. I’ve witnessed extreme devastation of reefs caused by a number of factors but also incredible rebounds within a decade. As the future unfolds there will undoubtedly be a loss of species diversity on reefs BUT that does not mean the end of times for tropical marine reef species. If evolution has taught us anything it is that organisms will adapt to even the most extreme environments, though it may take much longer than humans are around. Can anything truly replace coral reef ecosystems for their critical ecological, economic, and intrinsic importance? Probably not within our lifetimes, so, from my perspective, it’s worth our time, effort, and money to attempt to conserve what we can. The greatest thing that we, as a species, could do for coral reefs would be to reduce our resource-consuming population.

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