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NWP Global Registry of Apprentice Ecologists - Kihei, Maui, Hawaii, USA

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Kihei, Maui, Hawaii, USA
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Registered: December 2018
City/Town/Province: Santa Fe
Posts: 1
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It was a beautiful October morning on the island of Maui in Kihei, Hawaii, in 2015. I was a diving instructor and we were loading our boat to take some people diving on Molokini Island. Molokini is a volcanic crater just off the south coast of Maui that is internationally renowned as the healthiest coral reef in the area. Due to some boat repairs we hadn’t been out in a couple weeks. The El Nino weather pattern had been forming since September, and I had noticed that the water was quite a bit warmer than usual onshore.
In the hundreds of SCUBA dives I had experienced off of Maui’s shores, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw at Molokini. As we descended into the dark ocean, the sun still hiding behind the volcano, my dive light caught the reef. What used to be the most colorful piece of ocean suddenly was a piece of black and white film. Almost every single piece of coral had turned completely white in just a matter of days. Many fish appeared to have left the area, often to be eaten by barracuda and other pelagic predators on their hunt for another protective reef. I came across another group of divers, and the instructor wrote on her slate, “dead reef ?”.
In thirty years, we have lost up to half of our oceans’ coral reefs1 due to human-caused environmental factors. Scientists are racing to learn how to grow coral that are resistant to modern stressors before the possible collapse of these critical ecosystems.
Coral reefs are dying due to several factors, but the factor that has accelerated most dramatically in the last decade is the rise in ocean temperatures.2 Another important factor is ocean acidification, which is largely exacerbated by coal and other air pollutants falling into the sea.3 Overfishing and other destructive practices such as mining and dredging in Australia are also contributing to the death of coral reefs.4 Recently, a remote Hawaiian Island that was surrounded by coral bleaching was completely removed from existence by a hurricane, illustrating yet another threat to coral reefs: rising seas.1, 21
The issue is relevant because twenty-five percent of the ocean’s animals live on coral reefs, and reefs cover only one percent of the ocean floor. Reef biodiversity surpasses that of a rainforest, so the importance in this regard cannot be overstated.2 The peril of a world without biodiversity was emphasized in early November 2018 by U.N.'s chief of biodiversity Cristiana Palmer as a “silent killer,” adding, “it's different from climate change, where people feel the impact in everyday life. With biodiversity, it is not so clear, but by the time you feel what is happening, it may be too late.”27
Thus, the loss of coral reefs from climate change will potentially be the mechanism of a large-scale ecosystem collapse. Coral reefs provide many resources. Divers, snorkelers, and surfers are part of a global tourism industry entirely dependent upon healthy coral reefs. Coastal protection is provided by what are known as barrier reefs. Most of the seafood that we eat comes from coral reefs.9
This subject has been increasingly studied following the record coral bleaching event of 2015, which wiped out 80% of the coral off Hawaii’s coast, and caused massive coral death worldwide.5 Upon establishing the unprecedented significance of this issue, we will explore different operations, on different sides of the planet, that are seeking to solve this crisis before coral’ 240-million-year history 9 comes to a premature close.
Each piece of coral consists of tiny creatures called polyps. The polyp itself is much like a jellyfish, a carnivore with stinging tentacles. Unlike jellyfish, however, coral polyps are unable to move from their location. These tiny animals have even smaller plants living in their cells, micro-algae called zooxanthellae. These algae require clear water to photosynthesize. This process creates the colors in the algae that we relate with coral. The zooxanthellae provide the immobile polyps with a constant source of food.10
The bodies of the polyps themselves are described by scientists as ‘sac-like’. Like other members of the family Cnidaria, such as jellyfish, they are armed with tentacles for destabilizing their prey. These tentacles are called cnidae and when touched, release venomous barb-like threads called nematocysts. With this mechanism, they complement their vegetarian diet with small floating animals called zooplanktons. They are in the group of Cnidaria that includes other ‘sessile polyps’ such as anemones. Many new divers emerge from a daytime excursion on a vibrant reef without full comprehension of why coral are like animals, and they commonly say that they are more stone-like than anything resembling a plant or animal. If they return at night, they will see innumerable small tentacles protruding from those ‘rocks’, resembling hundreds of small anemones.
Coral doesn’t just actively participate in the Animal and Plant kingdom. It also is a dominant player in the lithosphere- also known as the Earth’s crust. The soft body of a polyp is very delicate and vulnerable to predation. Coral polyps can separate calcium and carbon from ocean water to form circular skeletons.10 These skeletons consist of calcium carbonate. Over time, this material becomes limestone. The Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico and Texas are an example of a coral reef becoming limestone before it is transported across the earth’s surface by plate tectonics.
There are two main types of skeletons that coral form. Hard coral are the colonizers of the reef, and soft coral often resemble sea plants. Soft coral, or ahermatypes, have skeletons that are wood-like, rather than stone-like. One example of soft coral is black coral, which is often used in jewelry. Soft coral do not build reefs and may or may not have zooxanthellae. Soft coral are not considered to be reef-building animals.10
Coral reefs are found throughout the planet, in more than 100 countries. They are mostly located in ‘tropical’ areas, generally referring to the region of the world between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Warm currents flow out of the tropics and help foster reefs farther from the equator. The Florida Barrier Reef, the third largest barrier reef in the world, is located to the north of most other coral reefs due to the warmth transported by the Gulf Stream ocean current, for example. The entire ocean is 1.35 million square kilometers, of which only 284,300 square kilometers are covered by coral reefs. 10
Coral reefs like warm water between 21 and 29 degrees Celsius (70–85° F). For the algae within coral to photosynthesize and provide the coral with nutrition, the water must be very clear. For the water to be of sufficient clarity, it must be very low in particulate matter which also means it is low in nutrients. Another requirement for coral to have a good habitat is that salinity must be within a very precise range. For these reasons, coral reefs are rarely found near the mouths of rivers.3
The slightest fluctuation in these conditions can spell disaster for a coral reef. The first thing that happens to the hard coral if conditions are altered is they turn white in an event known as bleaching. Scientists have been hard at work trying to explain this phenomenon, which was poorly understood as recently as 2004, when bleaching was relatively new and thought to be a death sentence for coral.2
Dr. Ruth Gates, a biologist at University of Hawaii-Manoa, says we now know that bleached coral is not necessarily a death sentence. “If the stress is relieved before that stage, the microalgae in the coral will regrow and coral will rebrown [regain color] and survive.” Furthermore, Dr. Gates added that, “in Kaneohe Bay (Hawaii), 70 percent of the coral that bleached last year recovered. It shows that there is a surprising level of resilience in the system.”9
In response to bleaching events, Dr. Gates suggests using an approach that she describes as “assisted evolution.”9 Gates acknowledges that the future of our coral reefs, judging by their current rate of decline, is “not pretty.”9 Dr. Gates, however, refuses to accept forecasts that coral will be wiped out in the next thirty years but acknowledges such a scenario does raise awareness toward global warming. “…the message that all coral are going to die is not one that empowers and engages people. We should be doing everything we can to reduce our burning of fossil fuels, but in parallel we should be doing everything in our power to stop the decline of coral reefs.”9
Along with other researchers at UH-Manoa, Dr Gates has developed a 5-step solution to the potential collapse of coral reefs. After a bleaching event, the team of biologists typically find that a few of each species are remaining. These are suspected of having the best genes and are selected for breeding. Biologists then try to strengthen the genetics even further by repeatedly exposing it to temporary simulations of stress. The third step is to introduce new “high-performing” algae that are more efficient in nourishing the coral polyps, requiring less energy for survival in a changing ocean. Next in the process is a hybridization that will mix two very similar species. The final step is to assist in the migration of coral spawn, by placing the new super coral in areas they may spawn with similar endemic species of coral.9
This discussion about the environment being dependent upon mankind brings up the contentious subject of geoengineering. To many of us, any prospect of further anthropogenic manipulation of our environment is precisely the opposite of what we want to do. For example, a recent study showed that one of the most antiquated forms of geoengineering, forest planting, is completely superfluous, and that nature does a better job of reforestation than any human forestry practices.24 In Naomi Klein’s expansive book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, the question of ‘quick fixes’ to climate problems is well answered: “Nuclear power and geoengineering are not solutions to the ecological crisis; they are a doubling down on exactly the kind of reckless, short-term thinking that got us into this mess.” 25 Discussions on the matter often infer that there is a presupposition in western society that nature requires human intervention to function, and to this day there remains a small contingency of people who still feel that way. This debate is rising into cultural prominence. At the time of publication, most of the concepts in Klein’s book were foreign to most Americans. Now we are seeing ideas like shading the entire planet with additional atmospheric particulates in the mainstream media, just four years later. 26
It is highly anomalous to see a biologist attempting to affect such a large-scale change on so delicate an ecosystem. The ethical dimension is a dilemma not lost on Dr. Gates:
In places in Hawaii, we have completely denuded settings where there is no reef or fish left. People who live in those places and depend on the reef for their livelihood are saying that they absolutely want us to carry out these interventions…When a reef dies, islands lose a defense against storm waves and as a result can start to lose their land mass. And the people lose their main food source -- with 70 percent of the protein eaten in the Pacific coming from the reef -- so they have to migrate, becoming refugees. The clear risk of doing nothing is a catastrophic ecological and social collapse.9
Dr. Gates would have been unable to create her “super coral” were it not for a breakthrough moment that occurred in the Florida Keys. In 2012, a scientist in Florida was preparing for his retirement when he stumbled across a discovery that would change coral growth forever.12
Dr. David Vaughan watched staghorn and elkhorn coral go from covering 98% of the Florida reef belt to less than 2%. “Ten years ago, we almost needed a coral self-help group by scientists because things were going so dismal. We were disappointed on how slow early growth from an egg (or a larvae) really is.” It was only two years until his retirement, and Vaughan’s disappointment had him planning on retiring as soon as he was eligible. One day, while working on growing some dime-sized coral that had taken two years to grow, he accidentally broke a piece. “These are toast,” he told his colleagues. “Two weeks later I went to check on it, and the piece with the dime-sized hole in it had completely grown back to the size it was previously. And that size dime took two years to produce from a larvae. That was incredible.”13 The other tank had other remnants from his accident, all of which had grown substantially. “We were basically on the road to say how small can we really go? And the answer to that is just one polyp.”13
Dr. Vaughan then takes the smaller pieces to fuse together in a process he refers to as ‘fragmentation and colony.’12 Holding a chunk of coral nearly the size of a football, he says, “These are like brothers and sisters,”13 he says. “They’ll actually start growing into each other and fusing back into one piece. This is that same style that was started by four similar pieces that just nine months later grew together and fused into a coral that would have been (the same size as) a 15-to 25-year-old coral.”13 In his breakthrough study, entitled Growing coral larger and faster: micro-colony-fusion as a strategy for accelerating coral cover, Dr. Vaughan states that “fragmentation and colony fusion are key components of resilience to disturbance.”13
“Really, [Dr. Vaughan’s] techniques are at the center of the question, ‘How do we build a reef?’”9 said Dr. Gates, who has integrated his techniques into her larger global strategy.
Vaughan, like Gates, has an upbeat attitude about his chances of saving coral: “We are now producing coral faster than we can get permission to put them back out. If someone said now if ‘for 10 million dollars can you take elkhorn coral of the endangered species list?’, I would say, ‘yes it can be done, and it can be easily done.’ How incredible is that? There is no reason we can’t get these oceans back to the way they used to be… But now we know that we can have an alternative. There is good news. People don’t have to say that it’s all downhill. We can make it go back.”13
While scientists are racing to save coral, mankind appears to be racing in the other direction towards destruction. The United States pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, an international climate pact that was signed by all other developed nations, aimed at curbing carbon pollution. The Canadian Province of Alberta, in a desperate bid to sell its crude oil, is fashioning entire rail systems to more readily purvey it southward to the United States from the Athabasca oil sands.15 On November 23, 2018, United States’ President Donald Trump denied his own administration’s report that humans are the cause of this spontaneous global ecocide.16, 17
The Fourth National Climate Assessment16 that was released by the Trump Administration is a 1,700-page report that was created by 13 different government organizations. It begins by imploring officials to “prioritize adaptation actions”16 for vulnerable communities around the world. The report also admits that if nothing is done to lessen our atmospheric pollution levels, rising seas and large-scale disaster events are going to be an increasing threat to society. Acknowledging the large-scale ecological restoration efforts that have recently begun to take place, the report clearly states that “many impacts, including losses of unique coral reef and sea ice ecosystems, can only be avoided by significantly reducing global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.”16
With coral in such a precarious position it is no small matter that the President of the United States denies his own climate report. Noam Chomsky, who has called the Republican Party “the most dangerous organization on earth,”18 captured the paradox of modern capitalism and the true danger of this scenario:
Take a recent publication of Trump’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a detailed study recommending an end to regulations on emissions. It presented a rational argument: extrapolating current trends, by the end of the century we’ll be over the cliff and automotive emissions don’t contribute very much to the catastrophe – the assumption being that everyone is as criminally insane as we are and won’t try to avoid the crisis. In brief, let’s rob while the planet burns, putting poor Nero in the shadows. This surely qualifies as a contender for the most evil document in history. There have been many monsters in the past, but it would be hard to find one who was dedicated to undermining the prospects for organized human society, not in the distant future — in order to put a few more dollars in overstuffed pockets.19
On Wednesday, November 28, 2018, 5 days after the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the National Academy of Sciences published a 230-page report titled A Research Review of Interventions to Increase the Persistence and Resilience of Coral Reefs.1 The report finds that we have currently lost 30-50% of reef cover globally since the 1980s. It states: “recent pan-tropical bleaching events showed that remote coral reefs under minimal human influence from human activities bleached as severely as reefs exposed to multiple stressors such as pollution and overfishing.”1 Pointing to the many of Dr. Gates’ studies, the report says there is hope for coral reefs, but reminds us that “reduction and mitigation of carbon emissions will be required for successful global management of marine ecosystems.”1
I remember that day off the coast of Maui in 2015, signaling a ‘thumbs up’ to my group of divers meaning that the dive was over. We were all watching the barren white reef fade from visibility as we slowly ascended to the surface. Once on the boat, one of the divers asked our boat captain if the reef would recover. A 40-year veteran of the seas, he replied, “I hope so. But I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime.”
Date: December 21, 2018 Views: 4727 File size: 15.7kb, 87.5kb : 835 x 626
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