Robert Ginsburg, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences
Devon Quirolo, founder, Reef Relief
Craig Quirolo, founder, Reef Relief
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: [with sound of breaking waves in the background] This is Common Ground. Life in the sea is a fantastic array of shapes, movement, and color. Nowhere is this more true than on the ocean’s coral reefs.
CRAIG QUIROLO: I’ll tell you my first experience with the reef. You know, coming from San Francisco I was used to cold water and the water was warm here. It was clear as a bell. And I swam up to an elk horn coral area. And I was so intimidated by the coral that I swam back to the boat and I was hyperventilating and you know, totally blown away. It was so awesome it just, it actually scared me out of the water for my first visit.
DAVIDSON: Coral reefs are rivaled only by tropical forests in terms of their biological diversity. And like the rain forests, these vital ecosystems are being lost or destroyed at an alarming rate.
GINSBURG: The ones in Jamaica, along the north coast, where over a period of 20 years the living coral has declined from something like 70 or 80% to 5%. Beautiful coral reef is now like a cemetery, covered with algae, fleshy algae.
DAVIDSON: During this edition of Common Ground we focus on coral reefs, which could be called the “soul of the sea.” Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
TOUR GUIDE: Now the corals that we’re looking at out here and the sponges that you’re seeing, do have something in common in that they’re both pre-historic type creatures. You see they’ve been dated back as early as 500 million years ago. Now this area of course is not quite that old. We’re not sure of the…
DAVIDSON: Here in the Florida Keys tourists are learning about one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet—coral reefs. This glass-bottom boat has just left the island of Key West. As we move into the shallower waters over the reef the group crowds around the windowed floor to get a glimpse of the stunning creatures and plants that inhabit this relatively unstudied area of the Earth’s surface. Multi-colored parrot fish dart among elk horn coral and lavender sea fans. From his lair beneath a boulder-sized colony of brain coral, a moray eel watches impassively and a ray darts out from the sandy bottom as the boat passes above. Coral reefs represent less than 1% of the oceans but a quarter of all marine species are found in this tiny zone. Only in the past half century, with the advent of scuba diving, have people been able to study extensively the abundance of life on coral reefs. And that knowledge is just beginning to penetrate into the general population.
TOUR GUIDE: From time to time you’ll be snorkeling or diving through here. You’ll come across the corals. You’ll be tempted to go over and touch one, see what it feels like or what it is. We tell you not to do this. There’s a very basic reason for that. That is you could kill the coral by simply touching it.
TOURIST: I’m from Nashville, Tennessee.
DAVIDSON: Have you ever seen a coral reef before?
DAVIDSON: And what do you know about coral reefs?
TOURIST: Not anything really.
DAVIDSON: Do you know if they’re a plant, animal, rocks?
TOURIST: No, I really don’t.
DAVIDSON: To the untrained eye corals may look like a bunch of rocks, but they are an extremely complex ecosystem of plants and animals that occur only in shallow tropical waters. Marine geologist Robert Ginsburg, of the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine Science, likens coral reefs to a city.
GINSBURG: Corals are the apartment houses and the sponges are the water purification plants. And the urchins are the caretakers. And I find that that’s a very useful analogy and can bring home the functional similarities between our cities and coral cities. And also call attention to the hazards and the need to avoid, what shall we say, urban decay, and decline.
DAVIDSON: And these coral communities are more than just aquatic wonderlands for divers and tourists. People throughout the world have depended on coral reefs for centuries for their very livelihoods.
GINSBURG: Well, in the tropics I think you can say that literally millions of people depend on coral reefs in one way or another. Either directly for the fish and shellfish that are eaten or sold from them, or in many cases in the Far East, the actual corals, shells, tropical fish, so forth. Then there are really substantial fisheries in coral reefs. For example here in Florida, grouper, snapper, lobster, Florida lobster, all these come from coral reefs. And same is true throughout the Pacific and I think as well in the Indian Ocean. So they are major sources of food. In, for example, here in Florida the coral reef, even though they’re discontinuous, are a kind of breakwater for the islands, the Florida Keys, that necklace of islands that extend south from Miami to Key West, Florida. And they protect the Keys from hurricane waves in many cases. And that’s true all over the world. That island in the tropics, especially in coral reef areas, have reefs that are these kind of breakwaters.
Then there are also biomedical applications that have come out of coral reefs and are coming. There’s an anti-depressant drug that I believe is derived from a coral reef animal. And pieces of coral are used in repairing bone breaks in special cases. So there are really some very substantial connections.
And then tourism is, you know, all over the world, is a major, major source of income. For example, here in Southern Florida we have about $2 billion a year of tourist income. That’s only in the southern part of Florida. And the United States alone does $50 billion worth of trade with reef-owning countries in this hemisphere.
DAVIDSON: And while many people depend on the coral reefs for their very livelihoods, that same human activity has been taking a toll on the coral reefs, says Robert Ginsburg.
GINSBURG: For instance in the Pacific over-fishing—probably in the Atlantic as well, but a certain kind of over-fishing—is probably one of the main culprits. And that’s, first of all using dynamite to kill fish, which also produces craters on the reef and kills corals, and you know, produces a scarified landscape under water, which of course you don’t see. And secondly, more recently, there’s been this very large expansion of fishing for the large predators that are sold for, as live fish in Hong Kong, Singapore, and maybe elsewhere in the Far East. And there’s this famous story in the, what is it, the South China Morning Post, of one such dinner that supposedly cost $10,000. The point is that one large fish for a fisherman in an impoverished, developing country, is probably enough to live on for weeks. So that’s one of the major things. And this live fish trade involves chasing the fish into a hole, squirting cyanide in there to stun them, then ripping open the reef, which is destructive, and taking the fish.
And what has happened according to reports is that the number of these fish has seriously declined because they’re not large populations. Now, what this means is that we’re taking the top predators out of the system. And just what effect that will have on the whole chain is not at all clear.
Elsewhere, for instance we have reefs in a couple parts of the world, one in Costa Rica and one in the Philippines, where logging and the roads for logging have led to increased run-off. That means sediment going into the water that can decrease the light because the water gets turbid or dirty, or also actually smother the coral.
DAVIDSON: Back in Florida a former charter boat captain named Craig Quirolo, has been observing changes in the reef off the Florida Keys, which is the only living barrier reef in the continental U.S. Quirolo began scuba diving on this reef more than 25 years ago.
QUIROLO: I’ll tell you my first experience with the reef. You know, coming from San Francisco I was used to cold water and the water was warm here. It was clear as a bell. Very, very clear, 100 foot visibility. And I swam up to an elk horn coral area. And I was so intimidated by the coral that I swam back to the boat and I was hyperventilating and you know, totally blown away. It was so awesome it just, it actually scared me out of the water for my first visit. It’s just like seeing a forest that you couldn’t walk through. You come up to these areas snorkeling and there’s no way you could get inside of their, of the labyrinth of coral structure in there. And that was what was so awesome. It was acres and acres of this stuff. And I think back then the fact the visibility was so clear, it smacked you right in the face. And you could look for hundreds of feet and see, you know, movement and schools of fish. And it was awesome.
DAVIDSON: Are those visibilities of a hundred feet rare these days?
QUIROLO: Today, yes, they are rare. We would, we do get them two or three or four times a year. Isn’t that ridiculous, two or three or four times a year? Maybe a week, maybe I’ll exaggerate and say two weeks a year. However, the corals that grew here had that visibility every single day with the occasional storms and rainy events that may have clouded the water, which is a norm. But today on the reef a good visibility is 30 or 40 feet. That’s good. And to a coral, that’s minimum requirement. So when we have days on the reef now that you can’t see but maybe 10 feet due to the green water and due to maybe a lot of sediment, a combination of both which creates our bad days out there, but corals can’t grow in those conditions. And that’s really what we’re exposed to today as a norm.
DAVIDSON: Because of their concern, Quirolo and his wife Devon began an environmental organization called Reef Relief. President Bush named Reef Relief one of the Thousand Points of Light for its community activism. Reef Relief runs many projects locally and internationally to educate communities, provide mooring buoys for boats on the reef, and to actually monitor changes in specific coral communities. Though not a scientist, Craig Quirolo has discovered new diseases afflicting coral and shares his data with scientists.
QUIROLO: We’d say the reef is dead or doesn’t look as good as it did last year and people would say, “How do you know? Prove it. It looks great.” So the only way we could figure out to document a reef and how it looks is to photograph it, using both video and slide photography. We were under the impression when we started this photo monitoring that it would take, you know I would be an old man, it would take 10 or 20 years to witness a substantial change in such a slow-growing thing as a coral reef. We knew that we would catch events like major storm damage, grounding damage—things like that we know we would be on-site to catch that. But we never imagined in our wildest dreams that we would be watching hundred-year-old coral heads disappear in front of us in a matter of years. This one disease that we’re able to document in time, the White Plague Type II, it was consuming 9 centimeters around the bases of just dozens of corals, and we documented that. This fast moving disease occurred in a matter of 48 days. Early on I watched the disease on the mountainous star corals that I called Yellow Band, and now this Yellow Band disease is being documented spreading throughout the Caribbean. It wasn’t in Jamaica in 1991 but it is now showing up in some of our monitoring sites down there.
Really all we can do as a non-profit group is to document these coral reefs. And the program that we’ve developed, this photo monitoring program, the methodology that we’ve created here has been created that we, so that we could pass it on to developing islands. It’s not so high-tech that you can’t train a diver or a person living in a, you know, Jamaica or Mexico or Cuba, how to do this monitoring. We’re trying to keep it low-tech so that we can get a bigger baseline of what’s going on around the Caribbean. And the importance of this is dramatic. Unfortunately, it’s sad to think that you’ll come back after the reef is gone and have to go through this data and say, “Now let’s find out what happened and how it occurred here.” I think, again, we are faced, we’re facing a critical problem. Our reef is dying before our very eyes. And we’d better make it a major national concern.
DAVIDSON: We’ll pause here for a short break. You’re listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes are available of this Common Ground program; at the end of the broadcast, I’ll give you details on how you can order.
Scientists who study coral reefs have been trying to determine the overall health of the world’s reefs. Robert Ginsburg and other colleagues began such an assessment more than 5 years ago. Ginsburg expanded the project in 1997 when he organized the first International Year of the Coral Reef.
GINSBURG: And there were, I’ve forgotten how many teams, all over the world. Something of the order of a hundred, that went out during June to October last year and made these, what shall we say, public health assessments of coral reefs. And naturally these people were not doing an in-depth analysis. So they were really looking for signs of anthropogenic?? influence on reef, or signs of damage by people. And they found this pretty widespread. And so I think it’s a really good start on this kind of thing.
Then, following up on this notion of the need for assessment we now have a program that’s just going to get off the ground this year as a matter of fact, that’s called “Atlantic Gulf Reef Assessment.” And it really focuses on what you might say are the reefs of the Americas. And here what I’m fostering is what you might call the geologic approach. And that is to map the distribution of reefs in serious decline on the one hand, and at the same time those reefs that are so luxuriant that they really must be preserved.
DAVIDSON: Are there any records, human records, that indicate the condition of these coral reefs in the past?
GINSBURG: Good point. Yes, indeed there are. And we’ve followed up on those. In fact, there are several, there’s a couple of studies that are really you might say landmark in terms of decline. One’s in Jamaica, along the north coast, where over a period of 20 years the living coral, what’s called coral cover, the amount of living coral on the bottom, has declined from something like 70 or 80% to 5%. What was a beautiful coral reef is now like a cemetery, covered with algae, fleshy algae. And that was a combination of circumstances. First of all it’s what’s called a fringing reef, that means near the coast, near people, and subject, in for instance Jamaica where there’s a large population, to all the stresses that you might imagine. Run-off, and over-fishing, sewage, so forth. Then there was a disastrous hurricane in this area, plus the loss of one of the key elements that sort of keeps the weeds down, an urchin that browses over the algae. So now, the corals are dead for the most part, the urchins are gone, and it’s really a disaster area.
And same is true to a certain extent for the island of San Andres, off Central America. So, what we learned is that wherever there’s a large population of people and there’s a fringing reef nearby, you can expect trouble in terms of overuse and the threats and impacts that come from land areas.
DAVIDSON: There’s a fierce debate among reef scientists about how much of the world’s coral reefs have already died and what precisely is killing them. A recent report by the World Resources Institute concluded that nearly 60% of the Earth’s coral reefs are threatened by human activity ranging from coastal development and over-fishing, to inland pollution. But activists Devon and Craig Quirolo are not going to wait until the scientists have the exact figures.
QUIROLO: I think we’ve reached a point in the Key West/Florida Keys community that we are all very aware of what has happened to our reefs. You will notice that there are not many dive shops anymore in Key West. Savvy divers simply know better; there are better reefs to go to. And so if the basis of our economic activity is indeed tourism and if tourism depends on clean oceans and healthy coral reefs, then if only for our own economic survival, the message that we must clean up our ocean waters becomes a very compelling one. For many good reasons beyond just the sheer conservation message.
And I think that is the most compelling reason for continuing our survey work. Because we are still dealing with people who I call, from the school of denial. We still have people coming up to me every day, saying “There’s nothing wrong with our reefs. It’s always been great.” Or, “This is a geological time frame change.” Or, “You’re alarmists.” Or, “This justifies your organization raising more money.” Trust me, we have volunteered and donated years of our life to this. And it’s not something that has brought a great amount of joy to us, but it is the promise that we can reverse it if we do take action—now, not ten years from now.
DAVIDSON: It sounds like there’s real clash between humans and coral reefs. But are you confident that with proper management, that with a growing human population we can live healthily with coral reefs so that they thrive? And we thrive?
QUIROLO: Most definitely. Because we already have this example. And I don’t know why it’s not cited more often. But in Tampa Bay, I believe in the `70s when the federal government was handing out grants for sewer systems, Tampa Bay installed a nutrient removal system for the entire Tampa Bay area. It was like an $84 million project. And twenty years later the water still has a lot of phosphate in it coming down from the mines—it’s the heaviest mined area in the world for phosphorus—but they’ve removed the nitrogen so they don’t have that combination of nitrogen/phosphorus. So the water has cleared up, the sea grass beds are returning, some of the softer gargonian corals are returning. So that there is definite proof that with a real honest commitment toward stopping pollution we can make a difference. We just need to learn how to live with ourselves a lot better. We just aren’t doing a good enough job. And we all know what the problems are. But every person I think has to become responsible for the pollution that’s taking place of the oceans.
I think the answer to saving coral reefs is each and every one of us understanding that our lifestyle has a very definite impact on natural ecosystems such as coral reefs. Humankind has the technology and the education, and I know here in America we certainly have the economic ability to take the steps needed to reduce our impact. For example, providing adequate sewage treatment, providing storm water containment, educating our guests so they know not to stand on the coral. By simply giving a float coat to a novice snorkeler, if he’s floating on top of the water, he isn’t going to stand on coral. There are ways that we can do things. It simply takes the willingness and the dedication to care enough about our natural world to make a change in our lifestyle. And I think that that can be done.
Well you know, the big, the other big dilemma is you know, you’re from the heartland and people out there, even in Ohio and Iowa, they say, “Well, what do I care about a coral reef?”, or “What I do in my backyard or my town is not going to affect the coral reef `cause I’m way upstream of it, or way inland.” But everyone has to realize that sewer treatment plants a lot of times empty into bodies of water. All water in creeks and rivers end up in the ocean. We really have to look twice at everything that we do on land and how it affects coral reefs. We’re seeing now, especially with this aspergilas that just dirt in the ocean is not good. And I always use this phrase, “If you take a bucket of ocean water and poured it on your potted roses, the roses would die. And if you took that pot of dirt from your roses and throw it onto a coral reef, the coral reef is going to die.” It’s something we never concerned ourselves about up until now.
DAVIDSON: Now, Craig and Devon Quirolo, through Reef Relief, are working with other countries to save their reefs.
QUIROLO: Well, we actually, we started with the Negril Coral Reef Preservation Society in 1991, by helping them install 35 reef mooring buoys on their reef. But at the same time we held a workshop which dealt with the issues of physical impacts to coral reefs. And they’ve actually created a marine park that’s run, patrolled by the local non-profit group, the NCRPS. They do a water quality monitoring program down there. We brought Dr. LaPointe down there to help them with that. We brought Dr. James Porter down there to help with the video transect program for them to analyze their corals. And we’re very proud that we can assist a local group like that to make such a positive difference in their reefs.
We’ve been to Cuba; we were working with the Cuban Oceanographic Institute to help them become aware of the coral diseases which are prevalent; you know, they are our closest neighbor, they’re only 90 miles away. We’ve actually found four—actually five or six—of the same diseases on their reef as we have up here. Because of the politics there it’s a little bit slow in our activity, but we nonetheless help them as much as we can.
We’re looking at a project in Mexico. They’ve created a marine park in Cozumel that requires, that requested 20 mooring buoys be put in. So we’re helping them not only with the mooring buoys, but with public education, with educating school kids, and then with their water quality monitoring program and video, or just coral monitoring programs necessary to keep tabs on their coral reefs.
Everywhere we go we’re sort of deploying the same activities and finding out that everywhere you have a coral reef and a desire to protect that area, there’s a little formula you come in with, with public education, school education. And it’s kind of neat that we can share the knowledge that we’ve developed here with these, with our regional neighboring islands.
DAVIDSON: The challenge seems bigger in a lot of the developing world, where people are so desperately poor and don’t have the economic wherewithal to change practices, perhaps destructive fishing practices or things that impact the coral reef.
QUIROLO: I don’t think it’s necessarily a greater challenge in the underdeveloped countries because the amount of economic leverage and power and the capacity to do much greater damage comes from the industrialized nations. For example the factory ships. And I have a good news story for you. When we were in Guanaja last summer, we were asked to give a presentation to the community in the Bay Islands off of Central America. And I gave a little talk about endangered species, about how sea turtles were endangered and that eating sea turtle was really a big no-no. And that has been the basis of their subsistence living in Honduras for many centuries. And the next day we were in the little town there and I went into one of the stores and the lady, the young lady working in the store there, told me that she had been offered some fresh sea turtle steak the next evening by her aunt. And that she said, “No, Auntie, I do not eat endangered species any more.” And the young lady working with her said that she had gone home that night—her father was a fisherman—and they were sitting by the docks and he finished his soft drink and he tossed it into the ocean. And she said, “Daddy, why did you do that? You’re trashing our ocean?” And he said, “Well, it doesn’t matter.” She said, “What do you mean it doesn’t matter. You’re a fisherman. How are you going to have fish in the sea if you destroy their habitat?” So I feel sometimes as if the challenge in the developing countries is not as great simply because it’s a smaller community, there’s more connection with the natural environment and the ocean, there’s an immediate payback if you do the right thing. Whereas in the industrialized countries, the economic powers and the capacity to do great damage is greater in some instances, than in these more pristine areas.
QUIROLO: The one reason I’ve been looking at every day when I go out to the reef kind of as diseased as it is, is that the corals are like the canary in the coal mine. The corals can’t move. They’re stationary animals; they build themselves into the bottom, and they just, the water passes over them, they don’t swim through the water. They’re telling us when there’s a problem in the ocean. [fading out with background sounds of the ocean]
DAVIDSON: Devon and Craig Quirolo run a non-profit organization in the Florida Keys called Reef Relief, which works globally to promote grassroots efforts to protect coral reefs around the world. For Common Ground I’m Mary Gray Davidson. [fading out with background sounds of the ocean]
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