It is a sad, unsettling, and accepted fact amongst most marine biologists around the world that the ocean is currently in a great state of decline. From the melting icecaps stripping artic species of their homes, to floating plastics being found in the bellies of marine mammals and birds, it goes without question that human existence is paying a major toll on perhaps the most expansive and extraordinary natural resource the earth has to offer. The ocean is suffering from global warming, overfishing, pollution, and more all at the hands of the human race.
One of the best known examples of global warming affecting the ocean is the great decline of coral reefs around the world. Mass coral bleaching events caused by rising water temperatures and other changes in ocean chemistry seem to be in the headlines more often than not. Coral reefs have been increasingly damaged by the massive implications of climate change. That is why I was pleasantly surprised to come across National Geographic’s newest findings. I’m not going to lie I was a bit skeptical when I first read its headline: “Coral Reefs Doing Better than Expected in Many Areas”. But after reading the article, my skepticism turned to hope as the study states to have found what they call “bright spots” around the globe despite the current state of coral decline.
The New Study on Bright Spots
Despite mass coral bleaching events throughout the ocean, a new study claims to have found what they call “bright spots” or areas where coral appears to be thriving despite the conditions. It goes without saying that these “bright spots” are significantly better off than the other areas where coral exists. Like any exception there must be a reason and that reason is pretty simple (dare I say obvious) and that reason is that reefs are less fished by people. Therefore, these reefs are under greater protection which as one can imagine has important implications for the productivity of the reefs as a whole.
One of the study’s authors, Jack Kittinger, states about the findings that, “Most reef conservation to date has focused on protecting pristine reefs in marine protected areas, but we’re finding that’s not enough. We have to also think about connections to world markets.” He believes that reefs that are more sustainably managed will more likely have the ability to adjust to the impacts of climate change over time. Kittinger is a senior director for Conservation International Center for Oceans and works directly with restoring ocean health through engaging communities. The new study recently published in Nature to raise awareness for the annual International Coral Reef Symposium in Hawaii June 19-24. Including Kittinger, the study was composed by 39 scientists from 34 institutions ranging from universities to conservation groups. National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Initiative also contributed to the findings.
What exactly is a bright spot?
The name is fairly intuitive, referring to an area of coral reef that is thriving or appears bright. Coral decline is often associated with an event known as coral bleaching or coral appearing bleached or less bright. Coral bleaching is a term used so frequently today that it is easy to read about it and not understand what is actually happening to coral reefs that suffer such a loss. Fundamentally, coral bleaching occurs when living coral becomes stressed due to changes in the water it lives. These changes most commonly include changes in temperature, light, or nutrients. When this happens, the coral is forced to reject and expel their symbiotic photosynthetic algae, zooxanthellae, which live in the coral’s tissue. Zooxanthellae and coral have a mutualistic symbiotic relationship, thus they benefit each other by a cooperative existence. Coral gives the zooxanthellae a safe environment and compounds they need for photosynthetic events while zooxanthellae produces oxygen and helps the coral remove waste. Since zooxanthellae is what gives coral their characteristic vibrant hue, when the zooxanthellae is expelled it causes the coral to become white or appear bleached. While coral bleaching brings the coral closer to mortality, it does not kill the coral instantaneously. In other words, the coral survives the bleaching events but it leaves the coral very vulnerable and at high risk.
Thus these “bright spots” are areas with healthy thriving coral. To best understand what they were looking at, the team conducted more than 6,000 surveys of reefs in 46 different countries. As I mentioned previously, the scientists found that the areas that had the most harvesting for the global marketplace showed the biggest loss of fish and other species and therefore showed the most signs of decline. These spots were named “dark spots” and the 35 of them were scattered around the world, the most notable examples being in the Caribbean, off the coast of Africa, and near heavily populated parts of the Indo-Pacific. However this article is aimed to focus of the 15 “bright spots” the team uncovered around the world. These “bright spots” were the coral ecosystems in the best shape or condition and were most common in places like the Solomon Islands, parts of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Kiribati (It is notable that this tiny Pacific Nation just banned commercial fishing all together in one of the World’s largest marine parks!).
Looking at the few bright spots the team did find, they were able to nail down a sort of pattern or formula to the ecosystem’s success. The most important and beneficial trend tended to be found in areas with traditional tenure rights. These areas tended to be the healthiest because under this system local people are allowed to harvest fish and invertebrates as needed but outsiders are not. The scientists found the most pronounced benefits from this trend when the native people were most dependent on this resource as there source of income.
Now you may be thinking to yourself, isn’t this concept counterintuitive? And you are not alone. As Kittinger states, “You might expect a high dependency on the reefs to mean high harvesting and therefore a dark spot, but we found the converse is true. What we saw is that people who are dependent on it are more likely to be better stewards, perhaps because if they crash that resource they are really in trouble.” While not necessarily intuitive, these findings are incredibly intriguing and have a way of seeming to obvious to be true. While the areas Kittinger talks about thrived, the areas where fishermen were able to come from all over tended to suffer and deplete any life in the area. Thus areas with loose management of fishing tended to see more reef damage than areas with better oversight. Fish are incredibly important to not only ecosystem health but also to the coral organism specifically. Fish keep algae in check by feeding on any excess or outgrowth in the ecosystem. Thus like any ecosystem, if you remove too many fish the algae could flourish and smother coral and other organisms within the ecosystem.
Make a Difference, Help a Reef!
Helping coral reefs and the ocean fundamentally is pretty simple; dispose of trash properly, recycle, reduce plastic use, carpool, use other methods of transportation, pay attention to chemical runoff and what you put in the ocean, etc. Basically be a good human to the earth and minimize your carbon footprint as much as possible.
The Government should also be making strides to help conserve and protect the oceans. Better regulation of fishing and better stewardship of the oceans is what needs to be put into action in the coming years. If changes aren’t made we could lose even more natural wild life than has already been lost.
“Reef conservation can be depressing, to it was great that we found some seeds of success where things are working,” says Kittinger. “We need to double down on those” But given the rapid decline of coral reefs around the world he says, “We really don’t have much time to get it right.” Personally I couldn’t agree more.