Jeremy Jackson & Zombie Ecology

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I can’t help but think of Dr. Jeremy Jackson amidst this blogosphere frenzy in response to the The New York Times’  Zombie Ecology op-ed (aka. “A World without Coral Reefs”).

In Friday’s paper, Roger Bradbury proclaimed coral reefs as unequivocally doomed. In his words, “there is no hope to saving coral reefs.”  The op-ed’s stinging declaration of ‘zombie ecology’ has stoked a swarm of scientists – including the SM’s own John Bruno. Many have made a convincing case in opposition to the zombification of reefs on the Dot Earth blog.

Now, Dr. Jeremy Jackson has been in the game of preaching coral doom-and-gloom much longer than Bradbury (and most scientists, for that matter). The thing about Jackson is that he warms of a gloomy future evidenced from the science. But his message has one hard-hitting conclusion: we can act now to halt the decline. He stresses that a ‘give up hope’ approach is not only wrong, it is foolish. Jackson came to my university, UNC-Chapel Hill, last year to present his well-known talk “Brave New Ocean.” During his talk, he rejected the prophecy that Bradbury puts forth:

I get really angry when my colleagues say that ‘its’s all over [for coral reefs] and there’s nothing we can do about it.’ That presupposes two things: 1. that we know everything that we need to know — we obviously do not, and 2. that we are immune to the consequences of our own actions. And I think that’s really foolish.

I compiled a 60 second video to sum up Jackson’s message on corals. The first 30 seconds reveal the depressing realities of today, but the final 30 seconds contain his rebuttal against all ye zombie ecologists. I’ve included excerpts from Bradbury original op-ed and Bruno’s response below. The slew of other scientist responses are worth the read, too.

Bradbury wrote:

It’s past time to tell the truth about the state of the world’s coral reefs, the nurseries of tropical coastal fish stocks. They have become zombie ecosystems, neither dead nor truly alive in any functional sense, and on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation. There will be remnants here and there, but the global coral reef ecosystem — with its storehouse of biodiversity and fisheries supporting millions of the world’s poor — will cease to be.

Overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution are pushing coral reefs into oblivion. Each of those forces alone is fully capable of causing the global collapse of coral reefs; together, they assure it. The scientific evidence for this is compelling and unequivocal, but there seems to be a collective reluctance to accept the logical conclusion — that there is no hope of saving the global coral reef ecosystem.

Bruno’s response:

The world’s coral reefs have indeed changed, are under enormous pressure, and their future is threatened.

But are they really “on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation”? No.

Is there really “no hope of saving the global coral reef ecosystem”? No, there is hope.

And is the “scientific evidence for this is compelling and unequivocal”? No, not remotely.

I think these are valid opinions, but they are not science, nor are they supported by science. What does the science say?  It is a complicated picture and there isn’t any way to scientifically test the idea that “reefs are doomed.” Like everything else in conservation (and life) it depends. It depends on when greenhouse gas emissions are reduced and eventually halted. It depends on how big the human populations gets. It depends on when we start managing coral reef fisheries with a modicum of intelligence…

…The challenge for my generation of scientists is to increase the number of these “quasi-pristine” coral reefs (I’d like to see a tenfold increase) and to halt the decline of the other 90 percent of the world’s reefs.  Are this optimistic goals? Sure.  But the science suggests this is doable and I’m far from ready to give up on reefs.

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