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The meeting asked the question, Are U.S. Coral Reefs on the Slippery Slope to Slime?, which is also the title of one of the reports presented for discussion. The article by University of Queensland, Australia, scientist J.M. Pandolfi and others (Science, v. 307, no. 5716, March 18, 2005) examines the impacts of pollution and other stresses on coral reefs, as well as what actions have proved successful in reversing reef degradation. Guest speakers addressing this controversial subject were put on the hot seatliterally. The seating arrangement centered on a speakers stool in the middle of the room decorated with paper flames. As discussions started, it was clear that the exchange of ideas would be as heated as the seat appeared.
The study by Pandolfi and others notes that not only are the reef ecosystems goods and services worth more than $375 billion to the global economy each year, but the reefs also provide a habitat for a breadth of species that have little chance of flourishing anywhere else in the world. John Ogden, director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography in St. Petersburg and one Pandolfis coauthors, was on hand to present his groups views. Ogden stressed that U.S. reef degradation has definite causes, which he called the Big Four: overfishing, pollution, global climate change, and coastal development. These economically induced factors place great stress on the reef, but, states Ogden, a reduction of stress will allow the reefs to cope.
The reefs salvation may lie in strict reef zoning. Slippery Slope... notes actions that Australia has taken by regulating its reefs, often prohibiting visitors and marking certain areas as no-take zones. Similar actions, in combination with endangered-species-breeding programs and stricter pollution and development laws, could be a big step in reversing the current direction of U.S. reefs.
The counterpoint article was Eugene Shinns Mixed Value of Environmental Regulations: Do Acroporid Corals Deserve Endangered Species Status? (Marine Pollution Bulletin, v. 49, no. 7-8, October 2004). Branching corals of the genus Acroporamajor reef builders in the Caribbeandrastically declined throughout the region in the late 1970s and early 1980s, leading to calls for their legal protection. But Shinn, a USGS geologist, believes that scientists should be wary of diving headfirst into regulation. Before supporting an endangered species listing for acroporid corals, for example, scientists must ask some questions, such as What will endangered-species status accomplish? and What precedents are there for demonstrating that endangered-species listing has favorable effects on endangered species of coral?
Shinn voiced ideas at the meeting that countered those of Ogden, proclaiming, We dont know whats killing these corals. He pointed out that listing them as endangered species might restrict scientists ability to study the corals and determine what caused their decline. He added that fellow scientists might lose credibility by taking sudden actions and not having the science to support them. Like Ogden, Shinn believes society can no longer afford to put these issues off, but Shinn pointed out that controlling our own population growth may be more vital to reef replenishment than going after the Big Four causes of reef degradation targeted by Ogdens group.
The meeting was an opportunity for dialogue among scientists with different backgrounds and opinions. It was quite well received, and participants suggested numerous other heated topics for future discussions.
in this issue:
Public Forum About Coral Degradation
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