So long and thanks for all the fish – A roundup from the ICRS from SeaWeb

Coral Reef News – SeaWeb, July 10th 2008

So, the final, dying embers of the conference to rake over. Dick Dodge kicks things off by saying what a diverse bunch of topics we’ve covered. This symposium has been one of synthesis, he says. Here’s how we’re going to do things over the next couple of hours…

Each Mini-Symposium chair has submitted a report. Nancy Barron is going to explain more.

The goal today, she tells us, is to make this fast food… er, fun. She emailed the idea through to her “victims” and got this from Steve Palumbi. “One,” he replied. “This is an amazing thing to do. Two, this is an impossible thing to do. Since one is more important than two, let’s do it.”

SP gets up and talks about this being the coral reef Olympics. Sure is, Steve.

Oh no. They’ve each got four minutes to explain. Pity me, dear reader…

First, NB talks about how many stories from the conference have been picked up by the press elsewhere. There’s been some good stuff coming out of here. Arghh. NANCY! You’ve done it again. We’ve all got to stand up and take a bow. You won’t get a third chance.

Wow! There’s been some excellent news coverage. Well done guys. We get to listen to John Neilsen’s NPR piece. Top work, as ever. Especially as he wasn’t even here! What a star.

Now for the SuperChairs…

First up, Chuck Birkeland from Hawaii. He was prepared for bad news, but was pleasantly surprised to hear that coral reefs miles from the nearest naked ape are still doing OK. American Samoa has been hit by bleaching, crown of thorns and hurricanes, but is in better shape than ever.

We’re talking philosophy now, Neitsche to be exact. “If it doesn’t kill coral reefs it makes them stronger.” He said something like that after a snorkeling trip to Biscayne Marine Reserve.

Now we’re back to that coal mine canary again. DD apparently said that it’s dead, but we still have time to save the miners. Confusing, isn’t it?

Marea Hatziolos takes the stand. She talks about the “Tragedy of the commons” being played out along the world’s coral reefs – the “race for the last fish”. Communicating the economic plight of the reefs is essential to help managers allocate conservation effort and to assist policy makers to visualize the economic impacts, such as habitat protection.

We need to use more condoms! Where did that come from??? Oh, it’s to keep the population growth rate down (by 2015, half of the world’s population will live in a narrow strip of land by the coast). “Condoms or bust!” is the clarion call. O… K…

Technofixes include coral reef nurseries and the SuperSucker, an underwater vacuum cleaner that can suck algae off coral reefs and clean them up ready for the corals to move in. How cool is that?

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is next up. 99% of what lives in or around a coral cannot be cultured, he says. But that’s changing through better molecular techniques, and we’re starting to better understand the role these little guys play. We’re all hosts to hundreds of microbes, it would seem (some more than others). Eeuww. Ah, but they’re not all bad, and the point is that we need many of them just to get by. Like the ones you get in yoghurt.

One of the Olympic gold medals of the conference he says (meaning one of the major revelations), is that viruses are now associated with corals. And you thought it couldn’t get any worse.

There isn’t a silver bullet with which to shoot the elephant on the reef (climate change). It’s getting tricky with all these euphemisms. We’ll talking about collateral damage before long. The scale of change required to pull us back from the climate change brink is to act definitively within eight years. How do they know that?

Joanie Kleypus is here to tell us about ocean acidification. There has been a real awakening at the conference – largely due to her, one suspects – of the threat it poses. There is now evidence that coral reef calcification rates are decreasing. Ocean acidification reduces the ability of coral larvae to settle. Not all species are hit in the same way, she says. It’s a case of “there goes the neighbourhood,” with the nice species getting killed off and just the icky ones left.

Where water is naturally more acidic (like in the Galapagos islands) they are less well fortified against the impact of further acidification. There are no local fixes, though, and global action is needed to tackle this one.

Steve Palumbi finishes up. Corals make their own sunscreen, he tells us. Neat. His point is that we’re learning more about genetic interactions to tell us more about things like the timing of sexual reproduction. It’s possible that they are communicating to get things exactly right, so that “pillow talk” possibility could inform us about minimum population sizes needed for a reef to survive.

Another Olympics analogy. Seems athletes were running behind buses to acclimate themselves to the air pollution in Beijing. Not a good idea (duh!) but corals are being forced to do just that right now. Let’s hope they fare better. It can’t be easy for a polyp to keep up with a bus. They haven’t got any legs.

Understanding spatial scale (and many interactions are happening at tiny scales) could be a great help. Local human communities can be persuaded much more easily when the problem is perceived at a local scale, he says.

He’s banging the drum good and proper now. Get local people involved, set up victory gardens, showcase success stories. He’s right though.

Scientists are done. Now it’s the journalists. They’re going to grill the boffins.

Tim Radford tells us that coral is amazing, coral scientists are extraordinary (and underfunded, probably). They know the deal, and us journos don’t need to help so much as take notes.

The population explosion is important because “the pool of ignorance is growing faster than the pool of knowledge.” So, scientists, what can YOU do to get the message across? We’re listening, as multiple Frasiers would say.

JK: It’s a political nightmare because you’re talking about people’s reproductive rights.

But isn’t it so that when education improves, birth rates go down?

MH: Female education is at the center of the issue.
SP: Even if the population stabilizes we still have a problem [applause]. Quotes EO Wilson saying that if everyone lived like Americans we’d need four Earths to supply them. And that was when an Earth was a lot of resources.
CB: How about focusing these questions directly to the president?

Isn’t his favorite book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”?

Ken Weiss: Thanks everyone for treating us journos as symbionts, rather than parasites. Appreciate murmer ripples through the rabble.

He wants a (short!) one sentence answer as to shy we should care?

SR: 30% of the world’s coral reefs are being foreclosed on, forcing thousands of species homeless. Sweet as a nut, Steve. And he knows it.
MH: Losing the species on the reef is like losing the color from a VanGogh painting.
OHG: Once they’re gone they’re gone for ever.

I think Steve won that one.

Corinne Podger: Damaged reefs mean lost ability to provide food for many of the world’s poorest families. She says we should all make an effort to offset our carbon emissions when we get back.

Frankly, we should have done it before we got here. See my earlier rant about those silly shuttle buses.

OHG: Five days can’t solve everything, and there’s a lot thinking about outcomes to still do.
MH: We have to form coalitions with powers that be.
CB: He wants to answer the previous question. Well, better late than never. “We don’t inherit our resources from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

Jeff Burnside: He lives nearby, so his carbon footprint is much less. But he’s double parked somewhere. Should have taken the bus. You can find one outside, Jeff, with the engine running, aircon on thermonuclear winter setting, and door open. So the rest of us can enjoy it.

Go to the Society of Environmental Journalists (, he says. Bet most you never realized there was such a thing. Well there is, and you do now.

His editor talks about the price of fish. I hope that’s in response to specific cues, rather than just as a general icebreaker. “Lofty [ideals] doesn’t always win,” he says. So how do we get stories out there?

MH: Coral reef services are worth billions every year. There’s a start.
JK: Get kids in the water so they have an appreciation of live fish rather than fish on the plate. But [turning the tables] how do we stop writing for the sixth grade and get the argument out there for real?

JB: We don’t dumb things down, but simplify.

Open question time…

A guy from NOAH. It’s not just children but elected officials that we need to get in the water.

Let’s face it, they have more power.

Next questioner: we humans don’t care… the next years are critical… ONLY TWO MORE ICRS’s. We should all think how we’re going to modify our work to avoid the disaster. How are the panelists going to do this?

Corinne: You need to be media savvy, and think about how you’re going to communicate with journos and scientists. Find the human angle, and a human to interview who doesn’t say “um” a lot. Local goes national. Think of your Nanna – say human, not anthropomorphic. Unless she’s an astrophysicist.
KW: If we’d persuaded GWB to swim with sharks we’d have the problem sorted. Audience roars. He’s got them eating out of his hand.
TR: Think of a different way to get your message across, then another… We’ll get there in the end.

Someone from Cairo talking about population growth.
TR: The Grauniad won an award for talking about population growth, but no one at the paper could remember writing anything about. He suspects it was simply for talking about it at all.

Audience again. The elephant has been in the room for a long time.

MH: We can’t drop it because it’s fallen off the table.

What? The elephant has fallen off the table. That’s going to hurt.

Marlin Atkinson (surely one of the coolest names ever). He wants the Society to call for large scale atmospheric CO2 sequestration. He thinks there are technological solutions. “Anyone taking oil out of the atmosphere should be taking it out of the atmosphere.”

I’m assuming he means carbon.

He doesn’t really get to ask a question (NB gets to him – he was taking too long) but OHG has a go at answering it anyway. Unfortunately, I completely miss it.

CB: You should be prepared to say things to politicians and the media that you wouldn’t say in a peer-reviewed paper.

The trouble with that is the slight issue of scientific credibility. You can be a back-stabbing lot. I should know.

TR: returns to the issue of climate change skepticism. You make two assumptions: one that the reader is intelligent, the other that he hasn’t got a clue what you’re talking about.

A remarkably robust rule of thumb.
Bloke from the audience gets out and reels of a list of how we can all make a difference.

Someone else stands up and takes responsibility for the elephant in the room! Or at least talking about it a lot. We’re going to find out where you live.

NB moves it on. I think she wants real question.

But she doesn’t get one. She gets a long, heartwarming story about a scheme to take school children to an athol. They all grow up to be marine biologists. Cool.

But now a Real Question, and from a student!

Off he goes. After a short pre-amble (he’s learning), “What can I get high schools to do to make sure reefs are protected in the longer term?”

SP: Get a Facebook thing going.

That was to the point. Facebook can do everything.

NB wraps it up. She has a challenge, for the journalists. I move discreetly to the side of the room. What headline would you use to sum up the conference’s take home message?

JK: Bumper stickers: Either The world is our aquarium, or Reefers vote
OHG: Bury some carbon, save a reef?
SP: Even Dick Cheney thinks coral reef victory gardens will work
TR: What is protected about a MPA if you can…
KW: Population, the undersea mine.
CB: Coral on acid. Just say no.
JB: The plight of the world’s coral reefs is getting more bad news but coral reef experts are meeting in Florida this week to figure out out best to save them.

Apologies for the ones I missed. I was hiding in case we told roped in again. I told you, Nancy.

Nancy sits down. Thanks, that was really well done. Innovation’s the name of the game.

Now the final, final wrapping up bit. Thanks to everyone. We all file out.

Hope you’ve enjoyed reading. Apologies for having to ditch the calendar at the last moment, but matters outside our control etc. Still think it was a good idea though. And next time, let’s hope the conference takes it’s own carbon footprint a bit more seriously.

Bon voyage,

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