[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.