Posts Tagged ‘coral reef damage’

What Coral Reefs Can Teach Us

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

On many coral reefs, the living corals have died, the reef has turned to rubble, and diverse algae have overgrown the rubble. So far, about 80% of coral cover on Caribbean reefs has been lost, and about 50% has been lost on the reefs in the tropical Pacific. Ecologists call this shift in ecosystem structure a phase shift, or ‘regime change’.

This global coral reef disaster is not a new and sudden response to some new stress. The shift to algae has been coming for 3 or 4 decades, and the stresses responsible include overfishing of both predators and herbivores, pollution, demolition, hurricanes, diseases of both corals and sea urchins, along with ocean warming and coral bleaching. Sea level rise and ocean acidification pose ever greater threats in the decades ahead.

Surviving coral reefs around Indonesia are still fished illegally with dynamite (solcomhouse.com)

Surviving coral reefs around Indonesia are still fished illegally with dynamite (solcomhouse.com)

If we could stop the fishing, the pollution, and the habitat destruction, as we do in no-take Marine Protected Areas, and assuming for the moment that the ocean is not going to get too warm, too high, or too acidic too quickly, what kind of coral reef recovery is then possible?

If herbivores like parrot fish and sea urchins return to a reef, they can clear the algae off pieces of the substrate, and coral larvae have a chance to colonize. Whether they succeed depends on many factors: light, current, predators, competition, chance, and even the ‘taste’ of the reef. But recovery is at least possible.

To help coral reefs recovery, corals are grown for a year or two and then transplanted to a damaged reef (digitaljournal.com)

To help coral reefs recovery, corals are grown for a year or two and then transplanted to a damaged reef (digitaljournal.com)

Of course we cannot pretend that climate change will not devastate coral reefs, no matter how resilient they might be now. Even under ideal conditions, recovery would take decades, and time is something we don’t have much of.

But coral reefs may still have a lot to teach us. We know now that shifts from one stable phase to another stable phase of an ecosystem can take decades, and is likely to be the result of accumulating and interacting stresses. Such a shift may start without our recognizing it for decades, and once we finally recognize it, there may then be little we can do about it. As the climate warms, we are likely to see this play out repeatedly in both marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Can it also occur at a planetary scale, shifting us from a cool and dry planet to a hothouse planet? It has happened before. Perhaps it has already started, a result of accumulating stresses that we have caused, passing a tipping point we have not noticed.

Or perhaps we have not reached that point, and we can recover some of what we have lost, like no-take zones in MPAs. Perhaps we can still slow the process enough so that the outcome is one we and most of our co-existing species can tolerate as we too explore the limits of our resilience.

Coral reefs as we remember them (plaza.ufl.edu)

Coral reefs as we remember them (plaza.ufl.edu)

Live Reef Fish Food Trade

Monday, July 8th, 2013

If you live in Hong Kong or in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, you can choose the fish you want to eat at a restaurant from a tank full of living, swimming fish. It will probably be a grouper, and it will be very expensive, perhaps $300 a plate, but it will be fresh, and it will taste good.

Groupers ("coral trout") at a restaurant in Shanghai (tracc-borneo.org)

Groupers (“coral trout”) at a restaurant in Shanghai (tracc-borneo.org)

Though the Live Reef Fish Food Trade started slowly in the 1970s, it has exploded in the past decade. It is causing extraordinary damage to coral reefs.

The target species are mostly groupers, snappers and wrasses. They are caught as adults and shipped to the restaurants, or they are caught as juveniles and kept in cages, fed small reef fish until they are plate sized, and then shipped to the restaurants.

They come from the Coral Triangle area, the region of the tropical Pacific with the greatest density of coral reefs. They are caught by hand, but usually after they are stunned by dynamite (illegal everywhere) or by cyanide poisoning (also illegal everywhere).

The Coral Triangle, including the reefs of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, PNG and Solomon Islands). (natureconservancy.org)

The Coral Triangle, including the reefs of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, PNG and Solomon Islands. (natureconservancy.org)

A masked diver applies cyanide to part of a reef in hopes of finding a few young groupers among the stunned fish (fishchannel.com)

A masked diver applies cyanide to part of a reef in hopes of finding a few young groupers among the stunned fish (fishchannel.com)

Another fisherman detonates dynamite to stun fish (turingfoundation.org)

Another fisherman detonates dynamite to stun fish (turingfoundation.org)

As reefs are stripped of the fish, the collectors go ever farther away – an expansion that has extended into the Indian Ocean and through the South Pacific.

Fish are collected from ever further sources as reefs are serially over-fished. (wwf.panda.org

Fish are collected from ever further sources as reefs are serially over-fished. (wwf.panda.org

Fishing has been ‘open access’, which essentially means few regulations, and where any exist, little enforcement exists. The catch is largely illegal, unregulated, and under-reported (the discouraging IUU designation).

Three countries provide most (but not all) of the fish – Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. China (including Hong Kong) is the single major market and it continues to expand rapidly: a novel, good tasting, living grouper is a fine luxury meal in a newly affluent society.

Fish are shipped to Hong Kong, and then distributed to other cities in southern China (sciencedirect.com)

Fish are shipped to Hong Kong, and then distributed to other cities in southern China (sciencedirect.com)

Groupers are the main victims. They live for a few decades, they grow relatively slowly, they don’t mature until they are relatively large and 5-10 years old, they don’t swim fast making them easy for human divers to approach, and they spawn in aggregations in predictable places, making it even easier to find and catch them. Targeting juveniles and using destructive fishing techniques should have disappeared decades ago yet they are flourishing in the current hunt.

A tiger grouper, now listed by IUCN as threatened or endangered (bergoiata.org)

A tiger grouper, now listed by IUCN as threatened or endangered (bergoiata.org)

Territorial conflicts have arisen among all of the players – between local fishermen and outsiders, between local and state fishers and agencies, between communities and between states, between conservationists and the need for jobs. And as usual, despite the market value of the fish, the fishers/divers are paid little.

This is a classic boom-and-bust scenario. Given the lucrative and growing market in China, the ease of capturing the fish, the lack of both regulations and enforcement, a projected demand that far exceeds the projected supply, and inadequate knowledge of the biology of the species, groupers in the region are declining rapidly to extinction.

Certainly there are efforts to underway to protect the fish and regulate the fishing. In February 2013 government representatives of the six Coral Triangle nations met with those from a few SE Asian countries to address the threats and propose more effective management and sustainable trade in living reef fish. They proposed the development of marine protected areas to protect spawning aggregations, accreditation procedures for fishermen, and methods to detect cyanide in fish in order to prohibit its use. They addressed the issues of capture of juveniles for grow-out farms, and the capture of feed fish for the groupers that would otherwise be food for fish communities on the reefs. Worthwhile initiatives that may be too late.

Perhaps groupers are just unlucky, carrying the wrong suite of characteristics to survive unregulated human greed and predation. But that’s an inadequate conclusion. The ‘illusion of plenty’ has been dispelled in many parts of the world, and it needs to be dispelled in the Coral Triangle nations and communities. Governments and NGOs can do a lot to change perceptions and habits.

A goliath grouper, one of the largest species, easy to approach and photograph, easy to capture (thebuzzmedia.com)

A goliath grouper, one of the largest species, easy to approach and photograph, easy to capture (thebuzzmedia.com)

At the same time China is a huge and voracious market, perhaps insatiable. If a lack of eco-consciousness is also driving the desire for live reef fish in the restaurants, then it too can change.

But this is much more than just another sad example if boom-and-bust overfishing. Coral reefs are also under increasing stress from climate change, and the community disruption and damage resulting from the Live Reef Fish Food Trade will only increase their vulnerability.

The Live Reef Fish Food Trade is ethically wrong, environmentally catastrophic, and quite unnecessary. If all participants truly understood the impact it is having, surely they would agree to end it.