Beautiful elkhorn coral., like this is at serious risk. Photo Credit: Justin Bauman

A Coral Crisis: My Interview with a marine biologist on the future of the world’s reefs

Coral reefs are home to some of the world’s most fascinating and beautiful species. They only take up one percent of the ocean floor, but are home to more than twenty-five percent of all marine life. Tragically, around the globe, these incredible ecosystems are dying. Justin Bauman wants to help save them.  

A Ph.D student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s coral ecophysiology lab, Bauman has spent the last several years researching the effects of how to manage coral reefs in a time when increasing ocean temperatures and human activity has decimated biodiversity. A committed advocate for the preservation of ocean life and writer for the Under the C blog, I spoke with him on what is happening to our coral reefs, why they are so important, and what we can do to save them.

Justin Bauman, Ph.D student in coral ecology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Below is transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Chris Anderson: What inspired you to be a scientist in the first place?

Justin Bauman: This is a tough question for me, I didn’t fall in love with the ocean when I was 5. I was always good at science and loved outer space and dinosaurs. I loved learning about each, but was terrified of space. I sort of fell into coral ecology; the coral researcher at Ohio State where I did my undergrad had an open spot in the lab, and here I am.

CA: What is your research based on?

JB: My research is looking at how the coral reefs in Belize are responding to climate change and human stress, using it as a microcosm as a for reefs worldwide. As the oceans continue to warm and more people move near the coasts bringing pollution and overfishing, there is an increase in stressors affecting these reefs. I don’t necessarily look at what we can do physically to make a coral better at surviving stress, but what we can do to manage the area so we can provide less stress to the coral. It’s a very interdisciplinary field; I am using ecology, geology, biology, chemistry, genetics, genomics.

At the beginning of my research, I started by looking reefs in Belize and seeing which corals were in which places. I divided the reef into three different zones based on temperature and downloaded a bunch of satellite data – hot does it get here, how long does it stay hot, how cold does it get. Then I looked at the temperature range and how often that area was above the bleaching threshold, which is the point at which corals begin to get stressed. So I combined all that data into one metric and sort of made a map of the reef with three different zone (high stress, moderate stress, and low stress). I then went to reefs in each zone to look at the species of coral and fish that live there and what’s the distribution of species across those areas.

Bauman’s work has help categorized the at risk coral reefs. Photo Credit: Justin Bauman

CA: What have you learned from your study thus far?

JB: We found as you get into higher stress zones, there are few coral species and there’s fewer coral in general. But there are some species that are there and seem to be doing just fine. We are now looking at why are the stress tolerant corals here and what about them makes them good at surviving these environments. It’s totally possible that as the low stress areas get hotter and hotter, maybe the coral already exposed to the hot temperatures, when they reproduce will they make more tolerant corals on reefs that don’t already have them, preserving them for the future.

CA: It sounds like a lot you’re researching land management except for coral.

JB: Our goal is to use science to inform management decisions. We are lucky enough to have some partnerships in Belize with NGO’s and the local fishing department. They get our data and results and canuse our science to guide their management.

CA: While it sounds like some of the coral species are tolerant of the increased ocean temperatures and other human stressors, what have you seen in the biodiversity in your research?

JB: The biodiversity in the Caribbean has really taken a hit in the last 30-40 years, something like 70% loss in coral. The CO2 is causing a runaway warming effect on the planet, and the warm waters cause the coral to expel their symbiotic algae, making them more susceptible to disease. You probably saw the news last summer about the bleaching the Great Barrier Reef. A similar bleaching event is occurring right now on the GBR, 2 consecutive years with major bleaching events are unprecedented!

We have also seen some major bleaching events line up with El Nino years ever since the 1980’s. El Nino’s brings warmer temperatures into the Eastern Pacific and that really messes with the air and water circulation. This causes the temperature to go up in various places around the globe at various times of the year. You can see these signals in corals where during an El Nino year they grow slower or are bleached. As a result, the biodiversity has really taken a hit.

CA: Outside of the increase in ocean temperatures causing bleaching, what are other stressors humans have put on the coral?

JB: More and more people are living in the Caribbean as the countries become more industrialized, putting more stress on the reef such as overfishing. Overfishing is a problem because if there are no fish, they algae are able to grow more and competes with the coral for space and light. In Belize, for example, they have a huge, beautiful reef that  covers the entire coast, but the fishing industry is huge there. Before 10 years ago, they didn’t have a lot of regulation, so people were just out there fishing whatever they wanted. Overall, we’ve seen the biodiversity tank, but there are still some good spots, places far away from shore, where they are less impacted by runoff and local stress, and are historically cooler. Luckily, they are working really hard on fisheries management now, which should really help the reef stay healthier!

Puerto Rico is another example. As they build up the island, they have created more and more erosion, which gets washed into the sea and just smothers the coral. Additionally, they don’t have great regulation on who goes to the reef and what you can do there.

Bauman taking data on a coral reef. Photo Credit: Justin Bauman

CA: What are some of the consequences of the collapse of some of these reefs, both ecologically and on human society?

JB: It’s a pretty complex issue, but if you aren’t one to care about the moral issue of losing a huge amount of oceanic species, there are huge economic issues with losing reefs. Reefs (and mangroves) are a nursery for juvenile fish, places where they grow up to be big, delicious fish. If we don’t have these places where fish can grow up, we can’t eat them. Additionally, a lot of the world’s population relies on reef based fish, shellfish, or large oceanic fish for food. It’s a huge fish source across the Caribbean and most places in the tropics. If we lose that reef, we put a lot people in a really hard place for food and that becomes a really difficult thing to deal with and starvation, migration, and war could spout as a result.

Imagine your entire country becoming a desert and you don’t have any food. You aren’t going to sit there and starve, you are going to have to move to another country to get something to eat. As people are getting less and less of something that they feel that they should get, they are going to try to take it from other people.This is going to cause a lot of conflict and I see that as a problem moving forward.

Another economic aspect is that many of these countries make a lot money off tourism. In Australia, for example, has the Great Barrier Reef, one of the biggest tour destinations in the whole world. As the biodiversity starts declining and the reefs starts dying, fewer people are going to be taking these trips. This is going to really hurt countries like Belize, Mexico, or Costa Rica, who rely on the tourism dollar to move their country forward. It’s also going to start being a problem in America as well, particularly in Florida. They haven’t taken a lot of action on climate change and they are losing their biggest city (Miami) to sea level rise and much of their tourism because much of their reef is dying.

CA: What have you found in your research that could be relevant to the lives of everyday people?

JB: The take away thus far is we need to start thinking about what we can get from the reef given the rise in global temperatures and added human stresses moving forward as they move towards lower biodiversity. There is a clear correlation between temperature and biodiversity on the reefs and reef function (which organisms are there, what services are they providing). So we have to ask ourselves how can we maximize what we get from them without destroying these ecosystems, because if they are gone, we could be big trouble. How can we make sure that we don’t lose this the reefs and how can we manage it best to get what we need?

While you may not live near the ocean, the principles still apply if we are talking about farmland or droughts out the in west. If an area experiences more drought, we won’t able to grow certain crops or livestock. Maybe we have to move from raising cattle to chicken or from growing a water relient crop like rice to corn? Or how can we invest in appropriate GMO’s. It’s just a way that we can think about how we are going to get our food moving forward.

CA: If I am person not living near the Ocean, but I am concerned about what the impact of my daily life is making on the Oceans, What can people do to help protect the reefs?

JB: Remember that market forces impact how we live. So begin by taking steps to move from a disposable culture towards a more sustainable way of living. Using less plastic and fossil fuels are the two things you can do right away to reducing your carbon footprint. Take the bus or bike to work instead of driving your car. I started by removing plastics from my life, which was hard at first, but it becomes easier over time.

Another thing you can do is something called carbon offsets. If you drive or fly a lot, you can donate money to a group that invests it into a bunch of different organizations that work on reforestation or carbon sequestration, much like an mutual fund. Carbonfund and Terrapass are both great options. You can also donate money that works for a cause that you believe is doing the right thing on climate. It’s important to understand that moving into a new presidential administration, things like NOAA and NASA won’t be to provide as much support. Some of the best groups are The Nature Conservancy, The Billion Tree Campaign, and The Eden Projects. They all have great missions in helping preserve not just coral ecosystems, but our entire environment.


2 Comments Posted

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