Demise of reefs in Belize? Coda

[I was happy to receive a lot of comments on our most recent blog post from the field in the New York Times. Since the space available to respond to those comments on the NYT site is limited, I've elected to do so here.]

Thanks to all for your comments. I have always considered myself a realist, and I am as concerned as anyone with the direction planet earth is heading.  I think Roger Bradbury is largely on target in making the point that reefs — as we have known them in the past — are or soon will be mostly gone. But does that mean that reefs are doomed? (See the firestorm his comments have ignited here) I go back and forth about this but available evidence gives me cautious optimism that we can preserve some semblance of ocean nature –  that is, if we have political and personal will, and if we act soon.  Those are very, very big ifs.

The primeval forests of the eastern United States, with their gigantic chestnut trees and flocks of passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets, are gone. They are in fact not even imaginable to us now. But we still have forests, beautiful ones, albeit dominated by different trees and animals. Coral reefs are going through a similar transformation. The surreal and fantastical reefs, filled with great fishes, that the first modern underwater scientists dove on in the 1950s and 1960s will not be seen again. Bradbury is dead on target there. But corals will survive, some of them at least, and some will thrive enough to form big populations in some places. Fishes will survive and it is now very well documented that they can thrive when protected.  Nature is more ingenious and resilient than we often give her credit for, as evidenced by the fact that the elkhorn and staghorn corals once given up for dead in the Caribbean are surging back in Belize and elsewhere. But that resilience has limits and we are pushing them hard.

So there will be reefs in the future. They will be very different than the ones Jacques Cousteau first brought to the attention of a rapt world a half century ago, but they will exist. We can take some comfort in that. But we should also be sobered by the fact that what kinds of reefs we will have and their very existence are literally in our hands. We will need every tool in humanity’s arsenal, from alternative fuels, to new models of fishery management, to geo-engineering to give them a fighting chance.

One Response to “Demise of reefs in Belize? Coda”

  1. UncleStu says:

    “geo-engineering to give them a fighting chance”

    I know that desperate times call for desperate measures. However, not only don’t we know enough to do geo-engineering without causing even worse problems, we will never know enough. Adding in the world wide political and social issues multiplies those dangers. Just look at the “geo-engineering” humans have done, and are still doing, throughout history, and the futile attempts to take corrective measures, and you will see the proof of my point.

    It is human to think we can trick nature, or do it one better. It is human to think a tsunami would never knock out a nuclear plant, a hurricane would never bury a city and a deepwater oil drill would never poison a huge body of water. In the gods of technology we trust. Until they fail. And then, we feel helpless and small and wonder what they — or we — were thinking. But the ones who profited by those kinds of follies are not the ones who suffer the consequences, or pay the price.

    Barry Commoner said, “Nature has evolved a mechanism over time, in such detail, that an arbitrary external change is liable to be detrimental. This is also true of a watch. A watch is the product of the evolutionary experience of watchmakers with watches. If you take the back off your watch, shut your eyes and poke a pencil into the works, there’s a very small chance that you might improve it. But not much.”

    “There is no safety in unlimited technological hubris” – McGeorge Bundy, Harvard Professor, foreign policy advisor to several presidents

    Considering the potential profits for good schemes and bad, geo-engineering should be a non-starter.

    Alternative fuels, absolutely. Just be sure not to inconvenience anyone in the developed world, or to restrict industry in any way whatsoever. And don’t dare to preach to less developed countries. They’ve repeatedly told us superior folks to buzz off, and aside from the damage to the world’s ecology, they have a point. They want what we have. We cannot convince them otherwise.

    New models of fishery management are absolutely required. Now if we can only get Japan to stop lying about killing whales for research – of course, profit has nothing to do with it – not to mention their annual slaughter of Dolphins, to appease a very few fishermen in one small town. China (PRC) and China (Taiwan) are both notorious over-fishing countries on a world wide scale, using long lines and ghost nets. They will not be stopped. Norway is also a great whale killing, and over-fishing country, but they are more honest about it. They just tell everyone else to buzz off. You have to admire their honesty, if not their policies. The latest creature to become a target is krill. They are pushing it in the USA as a dietary supplement, among other uses. Reducing the krill population not only threatens whales but the entire food chain. Here’s a mystery: how could humanity have survived this long with without eating krill? Hint: it’s a trick question.

    Fish farming for salmon has proven to be seriously destructive to wild salmon, as we were warned. However, the damage appeared far sooner than even the most pessimistic predictions. And these industries will not be stopped.

    What are the answers? I only have one idea. It is entirely inadequate, and will not be widely welcomed. Reduce the human population. The number of humans, combined with human nature, is toxic. Humans will do anything, believe anything and convince themselves of anything to avoid the doing the right thing.

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