International Coral Reef Symposium

July 8-13 | Cairns, Australia

This was my first trip to Australia, and I hope not the last. I was there primarily to attend the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS), a once every 4 years gathering of ~2,000 coral reef scientists. In addition to learning about many new developments in marine science and conservation, I made sure to see the Great Barrier Reef with my own eyes, and spend a few days in Sydney.

At ICRS, plenary lectures by Jeremy Jackson and Peter Kareiva crystallized, respectively, (1) the historical trends of coral reefs, and the importance of strategic and cohesive future research; and (2) the social context, failings, and options for the environmental movement. They are wonderful speakers, and I highly recommend you check out there talks available online here.

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There were interesting talks on the potential for using remote sensing to estimate fish catches (e.g. you can count fish traps from Google Earth images) and MPA effectiveness (e.g. smaller algae-free halos around coral patches are indicative of greater predator abundance that prevents herbivores from venturing to far from safety to graze). There is also innovative work on the social side of MPAs, including taking advantage of resort property rights in the Maldives, and using short-term area closures for fast reproducing species (e.g. octopus) to show the effectiveness of MPAs and build stakeholder support for larger MPA networks.

Being surrounded by all these smart people and good ideas for conservation and sustainable use, I found myself dismayed at the disconnect between advancing state of the science on both threats to reefs and management solutions, and the declining state of coral reefs worldwide. Why this incongruence? One answer is that the scientists are not making the management decisions, another is that this community is not thinking enough about the people part of the coral reef ecosystem – how to incentivize far-sighted stewardship, and how to balance food security and economic viability with ecosystem health and productivity.

And then there were the elephant and gorilla in the room: climate change and ocean acidification. The consensus was that reefs will continue to exist, just not nearly in the state humans prize, and that local management of threats (via MPAs, sustainable fisheries management, pollution control) can do a lot to bolster reef resilience to climate change until the imperative of dramatic, global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is achieved. The conversation was a nuanced, and more appropriately toned version of the New York Times op-ed that was released following the conference, “A World Without Reefs” (also see the conversation that followed on Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog).

I left with the most cautious possible optimism. There is so much work to be done.