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Science on the Hot Seat in Public Forum About Coral Degradation

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the "hot seat"
Above: The "hot seat" provided for guest speakers at a public forum about how to deal with widespread coral degradation.
Florida’s coastal reefs are sites of invaluable biodiversity, as well as stunning beauty, for scientists and tourists alike. The threat of waters without the lush habitats could prove to be a nightmarish reality. On May 13, scientists, students, professors, and members of the general public met at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) St. Petersburg Science Center in St. Petersburg, FL, to discuss the state of coral reefs and a plan of action for preserving them. The discussion was the first of a seminar series called “Community, Science, and Environmental Policy Brown Bag Discussion,” a lunch meeting held at noon. A crowd of more than 40 people met to discuss two differing viewpoints on how to remedy the degradation of U.S. coral reefs.

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 seat”—literally. The seating arrangement centered on a speaker’s 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 ecosystem’s “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 Pandolfi’s coauthors, was on hand to present his group’s 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 reef’s 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 Shinn’s “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 Acropora—major reef builders in the Caribbean—drastically 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 don’t know what’s 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 Ogden’s 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.

Related Web Sites
Declining Coral Reefs
Science Vol. 301 No. 5635
Are U.S. Coral Reefs on the Slippery Slope to Slime?
Science Vol. 307, No. 5716
Marine Pollution Bulletin
scientific journal
St. Petersburg Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Florida Institute of Oceanography

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in this issue: Fieldwork cover story:
Coral Coring in Flower Garden Banks NMS

Research Brief Tsunami Warning Startles U.S. West Coast

Outreach Lessons and Questions from the Indian Ocean Tsunami

Summer Internship at the USGS National Wetlands Research Center

New Web Site About Indian Ocean Tsunami

Public Forum About Coral Degradation

Hurricanes: Predicting Their Path of Destruction

Meetings Impact of Carbon Dioxide on Marine Life

Awards William R. Normark Receives Francis P. Shepard Medal

Publications July Publications List

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