Sunday, November 24, 2013

Living Ocean Foundation: a 6-year coral reef expedition with hopes of making a difference

 There are many ocean conservation organizations that support the protection of coral reefs across the globe.  Each organization does the best with the resources that they have available, ranging from scientific research to general public awareness.  My personal interest has always been in groups that are producing quantifiable results, not just fan club-like support, although each has its place.  In my experience, I have found that what moves the bar forward in terms of international and regional policy-making are results that are meaningful to the politicians and diplomats who make the decisions that can have a direct impact on the preservation of coral reefs.

The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation is one such organization that has been involved in an ambitious project to catalog the reefs of the world in a way that provides policy-makers with the information they need to make, hopefully, informed and responsible decisions.  The organization, founded in 2000 with considerable financial support from Prince Khaled bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, has been involved in a six-year expedition to document the condition and health of coral reefs, utilizing a variety of media formats and standardized scientific measurement methods and protocols.

I have been fortunate to have had several conversations at past ocean conservation events with the foundation's executive director, Capt. Philip Renaud, USN retired.  With the release of the foundation's new, revamped website, I took the opportunity to address some questions to Capt. Renaud while he was on location exploring the coral reefs in New Caledonia, 750 miles east of Australia.   

RT: You’re currently on board the Golden Shadow in New Caledonia; what are you finding as to the current condition of the coral reefs there?
PR: New Caledonia holds a special place on our list of Global Reef Expedition sites. The coral reefs are in exceptionally good health here when put in context with the severity of the global coral reef crisis. The species diversity and high percentage of living coral cover are remarkable. We are presently surveying the most northerly atolls, which are called the D’entrecasteaux Atolls. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site managed by the Government of New Caledonia. There is very low anthropogenic stress on these reefs and atolls. Most notably, the top-level predators are abundant. We observe numerous sharks on nearly every dive and there are large groupers, Napoleon Wrasse, sea turtles, tuna, etc. on most dives. There are some worrying signs, however. There are quite a lot of diseased coral colonies and we discovered an outbreak of coral eating Crown of Thorns Sea stars at one small atoll.  Also, around the mainland, there is a large amount of run-off and sedimentation from the mining industry which negatively impacts water quality.

RT: You are about halfway into the Living Ocean Foundation’s 6-year commitment to the Coral Reef Expedition.  This is much more than an extended tropical dive vacation; what are the quantifiable goals that have been set forth for this expedition?  How are you serving – or intend to serve – both the scientific community and the marine policy community?
PR: The Global Reef Expedition is surveying across gradients (change) of biodiversity and anthropogenic (caused by man) stress. The data we collect will therefore permit us to separate natural disturbances from anthropogenic stress.  At the last International Coral Reef Symposium, one of the keynote speakers criticized coral scientists for not standardizing survey methods. We claim to be the first global coral expedition that is applying standardized survey protocols around the world.  Therefore, the Global Reef Expedition will provide coral reef scientists the ability to objectively compare and contrast reef health region to region and reef to reef.  We are also focusing on measuring indicators of coral reef resilience to get an understanding of whether or not coral reefs will be able to get through the climate change bottleneck. We create high-resolution habitat maps everywhere we survey to empower resource managers and accelerate the creation of networks of Marine Protected Areas.  We also only visit countries that have invited us thereby demonstrating the political will to implement conservation measures.  The Global Reef Expedition acts as an accelerant and catalyst to reef conservation.

RT: What will the general public ultimately gain from your expedition?  How do you plan to package your data for meaningful “general consumption”?
PR: The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation has a vibrant film production program and we’re broadcasting films that build awareness of the coral reef crisis and also talk about solutions. We place emphasis on effectively communicating science to decision makers and the general public. We have also started an exciting new coral reef education program with interactive, turn-key curricula, a Coral Reef Educator on the Water (C.R.E.W.) Program where we take a teacher on an expedition, and we have a Science Without Borders© Challenge program where students win prizes for the best submission of multi-media projects focused on an ocean conservation theme.

RT: You have several more years to go, but at this point, what does your team see as the primary reasons or causes for the healthy reefs you have seen so far; and what is impacting the unhealthy reefs?
PR: Coral Reefs are very inter-dependent and highly complex ecosystems.  Coral Reefs need connectivity with mangroves, sea grass beds, and other reefs to stay healthy.  They also need a healthy fish population.  Fish need corals and corals need fish to thrive. Each organism on the reef plays a functional role to maintain health of the reef.  Just like a city, a coral reef has street cleaners, policemen, carpenters, plumbers, construction workers, garbage collectors, etc.  If you started removing these functional components out of your city one by one, your city would soon become a disaster.  Same goes for the coral reefs.  We’ve loved them to death for too long by extracting everything of value we possibly can.  We’ve removed the predators, scrapers, grazers, detritivores, and herbivores off the reef.  We’ve polluted, dynamited, poisoned and bulldozed coral reefs.  Now we’re cooking the reefs with global warming. It’s a very tough situation. Our Global Reef Expedition has found that the reefs that are most remote and inaccessible are without a doubt the healthiest.  And, of the reefs that are close to big population centers, those reefs afforded protection are doing much better than unprotected reefs. That being said, it seems as if no reef, no matter how remote, is immune to the long reach of man. Global warming and ocean acidification is affecting reefs everywhere now. Our hope is that if we can quickly remove many of the local stressors such as pollution, sedimentation, and over-fishing, that the natural resilience of coral reefs will prevail in the face of climate change stress (the bottleneck) until such time as the world shifts to clean energy and sustainable fishing and land use practices.   

RT: There’s a lot to see and do on the new Living Oceans Foundation website.  Any suggestions as to how to get the most out of it for someone new to coral conservation?
PR: My suggestion is to concentrate on the “resources” tab.  Our goal is to continue to build the resources available on our website to become the go-to source for resource managers, educators, scientists and the general public.  We’ve really just begun so visit our site frequently.  One resource I’d like to bring to your attention is the World Web Map.  This is a new and unique map application that displays all of our coral reef habitat maps with more and more coming on-line continuously.  This is a prototype application that we’re very excited about.  It is interactive and there is a data portal built in that allows anyone to download the underlying data for free. 

Source: Living Oceans Foundation website 
Source: New Caledonia

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