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May 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 43, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Coral Reefs Are Dying Everywhere

and divers should be up in arms

from the May, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In 2016, more than 50 percent of the 70,000 coral colonies in 13 countries were bleached and dead, including large sections of Australia's Great Barrier Reef -- scientists says hundreds of miles of it, stretching across the formerly pristine northern sector; the more southerly sections that barely escaped last year's bleaching are subject to this precursor of another die-off.

Terry P. Hughes, director of a government-funded center for coral reef studies at James Cook University, has said, "We didn't expect to see this level of destruction for another 30 years."

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) has had a healthy existence for 25 million years. It is getting wiped out in two or three mere decades. Global warming deniers -- many of whom are disciples of the fossil fuel industry -- may attribute this to some other phenomenon, but the facts are there for all to see. And the U.S. government, also heavily influenced by the same industry, is uniquely remorseless in its attitude toward the problem.

The state of coral reefs is a telling sign of the health of the seas and a marker of the ravages of global climate change. Hughes' aerial surveys, combined with underwater measurements, found that 67 percent of corals had died in a long stretch north of Port Douglas.

Furthermore, tropical cyclone Debbie smashed into the GBR in March, and caused even more damage in a 60-mile (100km)-wide corridor.

Australia is Not Alone

But it's not just in Australia where the reefs are in danger: Around the Indian Ocean islands of the Maldives, scientists are racing to prevent the corals from being wiped out. "This isn't something that's going to happen 100 years from now. We're losing them right now," said marine biologist Julia Baum of Canada's University of Victoria. "We're losing them really quickly, much more quickly than I think any of us ever could have imagined."

"To lose coral reefs is to fundamentally undermine the health of a very large proportion of the human race," said Ruth Gates, director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

"Whether you're living in North America or Europe or Australia, you should be concerned," said biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, of Australia's University of Queensland. "This is not just some distant dive destination, a holiday destination. This is the fabric of the ecosystem that supports us."

The media has focused on damage to the GBR, but other reefs, from Japan to Hawaii to Florida have fared just as badly or worse. In the central Pacific, the University of Victoria's Baum has been conducting research on Kiritimati (Christmas Island) in the Republic of Kiribati. Increased sea temperatures there lasted for 10 months last year, killing a staggering 90 percent of the reef.

In Tobago, the health of what is considered the western hemisphere's biggest brain coral -- a giant witnessed by many Undercurrent readers -- is at risk as it expels color-giving algae. Alvin Douglas of Tobago's Frontier Divers said the death of the reefs hits Tobago hard 'because we depend a lot on the health and wellness of the coral to sustain our economies, and that includes the fishing and tourism sectors."

A Dual Threat To Indonesian Reefs

If that is not bad enough, the binary activities of man can have a disastrous effect, too. In Indonesia, the Jakarta Post reports that, according to research by the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, diving and snorkeling contribute to localized coral reef damage. There have been undeniable incidents of itinerant visitors scrawling their names on hard corals. Doug Meikle, an Australian who lives in the region of Raja Ampat, adds that live-aboard anchors are responsible as well, and they are even worse than the vandals who carve their names into coral.

"To lose coral reefs is to fundamentally undermine the health of a very large proportion of the human race."

Worse still, on March 4th, a British 4,290-ton cruise liner, Caledonian Sky, ran aground on the reef north of Kri Island, at the epicenter of Raja Ampat, destroying more than 17,000 square feet (1,600 sq. m) of pristine coral. It ran aground on the coral after a bird-watching trip to Waigeo Island. The giant vessel was later towed off by a tug, doing further damage.

Near Bali, Indonesia, 44 divers cleaned up the underwater area around Nusa Dua and Tanjung Benoa, citing non-organic trash as a serious problem that has threatened the health and beauty of the marine ecosystem. The issue's story on the Pelagian describes the trash encountered by muck divers throughout Indonesia.

Construction Right on Reefs

Australia's government has given the go-ahead to clear a 32-mile (54km) stretch of what's left of the GBR as a coal ship express lane. This will aid coal exports to China, departing from Abbot Point to the Pacific.

For the moment, however, they are unable to find enough aquatic dozers to clear out the coral, most likely because they are all being used by the Chinese, who are destroying coral reefs in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea to build military bases. While Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam each claim a portion of the Spratly archipelago, China claims all of it, and they have proceeded to build bases and housing with little international pressure to stop.

Greg Asner, a global ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, writes that the Spratly atolls "are important sources of coral larvae for that part of the South China Sea. Each atoll is a habitat for connected layers of life forms ranging from corals and invertebrates to huge schools of hammerhead sharks and bottlenose dolphins. Each layer relies on the presence and health of the next layer, and the coral reefs form a critical core for the regional ecosystem as a whole."

A bit far-fetched but point made.
From a series of climate change awareness posters
available for free download from Colorado ad agency Walden Hyde.

A Glimmer of Hope, or Is It A Diversion?

Catorina Fattori, the marine biologist at the Outrigger Konotta Maldives Resort, heads the resort's collaboration with a local dive team and the German Museum of Oceanography and Fisheries in an initiative called Outrigger Ozone, a program designed to rebuild and regrow damaged coral reefs off the tiny island. The recent bleaching is the latest in a series of global warming and human-related assaults on the reef; this one attacked the reef she had already worked to restore, setting back her progress significantly.

Outrigger Konotta, along with Wakatobi Dive Resort in Southeast Sulawesi, the Andaman in Malaysia, Alila Manggis in Bali, and Taj Exotica in the Maldives, aims to achieve the opposite. All five resorts run reef-reconstruction and conservation programs: they attach broken but still-living coral fragments to a frame that is secured underwater. It's a slow process (coral takes about 10 years to grow fully), but with care and protection, the reef regenerates itself on the frames. More than 321 coral frames have been transplanted into the reef. The Outrigger team alone has already planted about 21,450 square feet of new coral (roughly 37 percent of their target goal, to plant a football field's worth of coral by 2025), and at the Andaman, 200 baby corals from the nursery have made it into the ocean. One hundred more are still growing and nearly ready to transplant.

While these efforts may ultimately provide living coral for divers and a few local fishermen, the ultimate impact is minuscule. To some extent, it may even divert environmentalists' attention from addressing the politics of global warming inaction.

It's Not Just Corals That Are Suffering.

The death of 600 miles (1000km) of mangrove on Australia's northern coast has been blamed on extreme conditions including record temperatures. Around 7400 hectares of mangrove strung along the Gulf of Carpentaria died in a single month in 2016 due to prolonged drought and sea levels that dropped by about 8 inches (20cm) according to Dr. Norman Duke, of James Cook University. Duke said that mangroves, much like coral reefs, are vulnerable to a warming climate and extreme weather events.

Divers armed with just a marker and slate can participate in a Wildlife Conservation Society initiative to record bleaching anywhere in the world. A rapid assessment template can be downloaded to enable date recording and sharing.

Have We Run Out of Time?

Investigative historian Eric Zuesse says that the first study to integrate scientific research to project approximately when climate change will produce permanent catastrophic consequences has been accepted and will soon be published in the scientific journal Nature. Things will start going haywire in the tropics around 2020 "and in our part of the world at around 2047."

In the meantime, a new anti-science attitude is infusing Washington, not only rolling back regulations that had some effect on stemming climate change, but also threatening to pass new laws that, for the short-term profit of some, will help degrade our oceans to the point of no return.

(Sources: NOAA Coral Reef Conservation/Trinidad Express/Jakarta Post/NYTimes/Sydney Morning Herald/WCS/

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