|(Above photo: Left to right) Stuart Sandin, David Obura, Les Kaufman, and Randi Rotjan. © Jim Stringer |
Of the three Phoenix Islands we have visited thus far: Nikumororo, McKean, and Kanton, Kanton exhibits the most impressive regeneration of coral. This is really terrific news. Man, what a relief too, to see and study this very phenomenon, more than any other single reason that we have traveled so far and at such great expense. The great table-top corals that so famously died in a wave of severe coral bleaching in the Kanton lagoon in 2002, are now host to a swarm of young table-tops sprouting atop of the old.
|© Jim Stringer |
The outer reef spur and groove system shimmers with new coral growth in shallow situations, especially in the lee, out of the full brunt of oncoming seas. One site, called "Satellite Beach" (near an old satellite dish antenna) is positively tourist class, magnificent beneath its fresh cloak of corals and fishes, including especially numerous and large groupers and snappers.
We are witness to a rebirth of gigantic proportions. You can feel the biological forces moving like magma beneath the busy veneer of everyday life on the reef, and quaking the earth.
It is always delightful to see one's own old idea dashed by new data. It is exactly the same joy as building a huge building of blocks as a little kid, then smashing the thing to smithereens. Crash! Bang! The result is a fuller, richer, less hobbled picture of how the world works.
Based on work mostly in the Caribbean, I had thought that rapid reef regeneration must begin with the reestablishment of branching corals, like the staghorns, for only they could grow quickly up and over fleshy algae (seaweeds). This matters because a stubborn cover of seaweeds holds many Caribbean reefs in what seems a death grip.
Well, maybe that's true in the Caribbean, but here in PIPA (the Phoenix Islands Protected Area), the aggressive regeneration is by encrusting corals, massive corals, foliaceous (leafy, like cabbages) corals, and branching corals alike. Indeed, if anything, the one group of corals I thought should be most important – members of a family called "Acroporidae", are rather thin on the ground around these parts right now. So what gives?
"And what is strangest about these reef communities?
Tons of big fishes, both predators and herbivores. Not a single sign of anything we could call coral disease in about 140 person-dives so far."
|© Jim Stringer |
What gives is exactly the reason we came here – to probe the dynamics of a marine ecosystem far from dense human populations, to see what's different. Way out here there is almost no pollution, almost no extra nutrients in coastal waters, fishing has been here but is extremely light compared to any populated coastline, and runoff from land is almost irrelevant – there is hardly any land at all. And what is strangest about these reef communities? Tons of big fishes, both predators and herbivores. Not a single sign of anything we could call coral disease in about 140 person-dives so far.
In both the Belize and Brazil MMAS study regions (Marine Management Area Science Program) we would find from 20-40 percent of all coral colonies showing some form of disease or disease-like morbidity. Finally: not a single shred of erect fleshy algae (seaweed), only calcified algae, mostly crustose coralline algae – the good stuff. And the corals are regenerating very rapidly, wherever there is a stable substratum to grab on to and grow over.
What's the moral of this story? Well, it's just an inference right now – we are working on the data needed to hammer every essential nail into the coffin, and then some – but the bang for the buck that could come from reducing coastal pollution, overfishing, and deforestation in populated areas could be huge. Huge. Even in a world undergoing massive climate change. Stemming climate change is an enormous undertaking, and it will take a long time to steer this ship off its collision course with the rocks.
|© Jim Stringer |
And yet, even in PIPA, that spot in the planetary ocean where mass coral bleaching (associated with climate change) has been worse than anywhere else on earth, the coral reefs have proven that they have immense regenerative power. But this power is rooted in a lack of large numbers of people. There are too many people crowding the coastlines of the world. Even at their best, the effects of this burgeoning horde turn quickly bad for the people themselves. It takes a while to bring the population down. Meanwhile, there is a lot we can do to diffuse, reduce, and maybe even stem the wave of massive ecological decline that has already enveloped us.
Our mission to PIPA is just part of a larger, collective effort to ask these questions over and over again on all the world's most remote coral reefs. We'll see, but we've got enough data in the bag already to reasonably expect this story to get stronger, not weaker, with additional information. Bottom line: there is no excuse for inaction. If people want healthy marine ecosystems – especially coastal ones – there are things they can do, must do, and should do right now. We can protest until we are blue in the face that it is politically difficult to stem pollution, replant river corridors with trees, shift the goal of development from runaway growth to permaculture, stop soil erosion, and eliminate overfishing.
– Les Kaufman, Conservation International Marine Management Area Science Program
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