Recently in Coral Reefs Category

kava.jpgHere are residents of Tokou village enjoying some kava in their brand new community hall. In exchange for Seacology providing funds for the hall, Tokouans established a 365-acre marine reserve. (more project info here:

It took me a few tries to wrap my head around this headline about a recent NOAA study:

US Residents Say Hawaii's Coral Reef Ecosystems Worth $33.57 Billion Per Year

Did you catch that? We often talk about the "worth" of coral reefs in terms of the revenue they can generate for local communities via fishing or tourism. But this is different. This is the amount of money Americans say they're willing to pay to ensure that Hawaii's reefs are safe and healthy.

Thumbnail image for DSC07965pEARLWALL1OCT07.JPGThe key point here is that the survey pool comprised "a representative sample of all US residents" -- meaning, it included tons of people who have never seen Hawaii's coral reefs and never will. They just like the idea that they exist!

In fact, when you look at per-household figures, it turns out they like it a lot.

The study breaks down coral reef conservation into two types: "Ecosystem-wide Protection & Restoration" and "Restoration after Localized Injuries." (That last one referring to fixing the damage caused by, say, wayward boats.) Put them together and the average amount a household is willing to pay is $287.62.

Sound like a lot? It is. Forgive the rough comparison, but say your household income is $50,000 (about the national median) and you're married with a kid. Two-hundred and eighty-seven dollars is more than you would pay in federal income taxes for everything other than Social Security and Medicare -- meaning national defense, health care, unemployment insurance, education, NASA, FEMA, Homeland Security, and so on, combined. And that's just for the coral reefs in Hawaii!

Who knows if these households are truly prepared to pony up $287 in the name of reef conservation. But even if the number is inflated, it suggests something quite interesting: it may be easy for us to not think about conservation, but it's apparently very difficult for us to choose inaction... so long as we're asked to choose something.

This Times article about Haiti's dying reefs I think illustrates an important point about marine conservation efforts: it's not necessarily a case of environmentalism-vs-industry. You need to protect reef habitats in order to prevent the kind of "Tragedy of the Commons" scenario we're seeing unfolding in Haiti, where over-fishing continues even when it's obvious it's bad for everyone in the long run.
In Haiti 54,000 fishermen rely on the ocean for their livelihood... [and in] recent decades, as their usual catches of Nassau groupers and snappers have dwindled and disappeared, many of them have subsisted by netting and spearing small reef fish that keep coral clean of algae. Now those too are almost gone, and the algae have taken over....

Pierre Guy LaFontant, Haiti's director general of fisheries, acknowledged that overfishing was a problem and said that officials were receptive to the idea of establishing protected waters. But if the government cannot enforce its existing fishing regulations, can fishermen be persuaded to abide by an invisible line in the water?

But of course it's not as simple as just protecting and waiting, since these Haitian fishermen have basic short-term needs that can't easily be put on hold.

Henry Hilaire, who has fished for 36 years, gathered nets from a sailboat with several other Haitians in waters that Reef Check hopes will eventually be protected.... Mr. Hilaire pulled two small fish, each about five inches long, from his basket. "It's really too young to keep," he said, but "circumstances are such that if we didn't keep them, we'd go hungry."....

They're desperate, trying to survive, so how do you tell them not to fish here?" asked Romain Louis, 37, a literature teacher hoping to become part of the eco-diver team.

Mr. Louis suggested that the fishermen would need an incentive... "Maybe, if these fishermen got a trade-off, they'd stop fishing on overfished reefs."

The whole article is worth a read... As bad as things are for Haiti's coral reefs, it's good to know that conservation efforts are beginning.

The World's Reefs at Risk


Recently, the World Resources Institute released a new study on the state of the world's coral reefs. This study, a sequel to a 1998 report, is called Reefs at Risk Revisited, and presents a comprehensive analysis of coral reefs, including how they are affected by climate change, and their outlook for the future. It includes a Global Reefs Map, which serves as a visual tool for understanding how the health of reefs varies geographically.  Even for those of us who are involved in reef conservation, the findings are alarming, with 75% of the world's reefs threatened by human activity and rising ocean temperatures, but only 20% currently protected. It also estimates that 90% will be threatened within two decades.  

The introductory video summarizes the findings:

Flooding in the Oceans?


Floods in the ocean may sound like an oxymoron, but the truth is that many marine habitats are highly sensitive to fluctuations in water levels and the changes they bring. Today, we are seeing a tragic example of this in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest reef system. The torrential rains that have been pummeling Australia this year bring many unwanted gifts to the nation's waters and reefs. Flooded freshwater rivers carry extra freshwater out to sea, creating a shift in the salinity of the Great Barrier Reef's waters. Species like coral, shellfish, and others are highly sensitive to changes in their environments, and even a small decrease in the ratio of salt can have devastating impacts. These rivers also bring with them many fertilizers, pesticides, and sediment flushed out by rainwater, and each carries a different threat for the reef: Fertilizers stimulate the growth of marine plants like algae and seaweed, which chokes corals and other native species. At the same time, foreign chemicals from pesticides can be toxic to sensitive marine plants and animals. And while sediment may be "natural" compared to fertilizers and pesticides, too much can muddy ocean waters and block sunlight from the corals, plants, and other species that thrive in shallow ocean waters and depend heavily on adequate lighting. Ocean currents carry river effluents far and wide, so even waters in southeast Australia make their way up to the Great Barrier Reef.


To make matters worse, coral reefs are in no condition to bear these challenges. While a robust reef might be able to weather them with relatively little long-term effects, the world's reefs today are already debilitated by climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, overfishing, and other threats. Adding floods to the mix may put them over the edge. As global warming continues to bring more extreme weather, such as the flooding Australia is currently experiencing, the Great Barrier Reef and other marine ecosystems will be on increasingly fragile territory.

Above, an aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef, the largest thing on earth created by living organisms. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 


Water, Water Everywhere...


Today is Blog Action Day, when bloggers worldwide join together to raise awareness about an important issue. This year's topic is water, and nothing could be more relevant to islands! Even though islands are surrounded by oceans, they are plagued by problems resulting from not enough--or too much--water. 

Sulawesi marine reserve.JPG

Coral Reef Roundup


There's been lots of news from the world of coral reefs lately--some good, some not so good. Coral reefs cover less than 1% of the world's oceans but contain about 25% of all identified marine species. They are highly susceptible to many environmental hazards, such as pollution, destructive fishing practices, and the harmful effects of climate change, particularly ocean acidification. Along with rainforests and mangroves, coral reefs are one of the island ecosystems most in need of protection, and the setting of many Seacology projects. 


Image from Wikimedia Commons

Diving the Red Sea


Because it is close to Europe the Red Sea attracts more dive boats than any other region of the world. The Red Sea's frequent encounters with thresher and hammerhead sharks and the beauty of its hard and soft corals help account for its popularity. However, if not managed well, too many divers and dive boats could ironically help destroy this beautiful dive destination. Every time a boat drops an anchor on a coral reef a large section of the reef is damaged. Multiply this by the large number of boats in the Red Sea every day and the potential for significant damage is great. However, by tying up to mooring buoys, boats no longer have to drop anchor.


To help preserve this beautiful marine environment a local ngo called HEPCA has installed the world's largest mooring buoy system. Nonetheless more mooring buoys were needed around five islands in the 494,100 acre marine reserve adjacent to Wadi El Gemal (Land of the Camel) National Park off the Egyptian coast of the Red Sea. Seacology, an international ngo with the sole purpose of preserving the environments of islands throughout the globe, provided the funding needed to help HEPCA install 25 mooring buoys in the Wadi El Gemal area.

After three days of sitting out the typhoon during my recent trip to the Philippines, our Philippines Field Representative Ferdie Marcelo and I flew to the beautiful island of Palawan.

philmap.gifAfter overnighting in Roxas, Ferdie and I met with representatives from project partner SIBAT and drove to Barangay Bagong Bayan. This remote village has a true "ridge to reef" ecosystem. With SIBAT's expertise, Seacology is funding the rehabilitation of a micro-hydro power plant. After meeting with community leaders, we viewed the non-functioning powerhouse. There is a nearby ice plant, which when powered will make a dramatic difference to local fisherman who will be able to chill their catches to keep fish fresh longer for marketability. The power plant also has an herb dryer, which when functional will enable community members to dry medicinal herbs to sell.

Bagong Bayan watershed.jpgThe Bangong Bayan watershed (right) is truly beautiful. The source for the microhydro system is above a lovely waterfall. The catchment at the top was not configured to maximize flow, so community members are working on that while they wait for generator parts to arrive. After staying back in Roxas for a night, Ferdie and I traveled to El Nido, on the northern tip of Palawan. I had heard for years about the beauty of this area, and stunning Bacuit Bay with its dramatic limestone islands and turquoise water.

Some Good News for Coral


I love getting National Geographic's photography email newsletter. I used to get the magazine as well, but realized that it was collecting dust more than anything else. But the emails - they are some of the very few that I actually take the time to go through and read. Why? They are usually filled with odd snippets about nature and the environment that are accompanied by beautiful photographs - exactly the sort of thing that I'm interested in, can quickly glance at and absorb, and then move on.

atom.jpgIn the most recent edition that I perused today, was a pictorial story about an area of coral reef in the Marshall Islands that is apparently flourishing 50 years after being the test spot for an atom bomb. Working in the environmental field, it's not a regular occurrence to find stories that are actually *positive*, so this was a nice change of pace. It is absolutely incredible to imagine that in only half a century, a blink of an eye, coral and other marine life could begin to retake the area. This reality is, likely, due in large part to the remoteness of the area and the fact that, at least since the bombs were tested, it has been relatively undisturbed.

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