June 28, 2016

Last week I was lucky to represent Ocean First Education at the largest gathering of coral reef scientists in the world. Every four years scientists, fisheries, conservation, management, and policy experts from around the world gather to talk coral reefs. This year’s theme was “Bridging Science to Policy” and the stakes were high. The 4th mass coral bleaching event had just begun, 34 countries had just signed the Paris climate deal, and our oceans have finally become part of the global climate conversation. This meeting was poised to help move the world forward on conserving our precious coral reefs.

Events like this offer a platform for engaging and energetic conversations. Common areas become full of lively conversations, collaborations being born, and solutions being mapped out.

Caribbean coral coverage.

I was asked to present my work in East Africa during the Biodiversity, Biogeography and Evolution of Coral Reef Organisms program. It is during these sessions where we learn about how our coral reefs came to be, the journeys that species took across the world’s oceans, the challenges they faced, and how the past can help us navigate the future. Among the research presented in this session were some of the most fascinating talks on the use of DNA to map out the journeys of coral reef organisms over the last 3-4 million years. Especially how unique coral reefs like those of the Hawaiian Archipelago came to be colonized. My talk discussed research from east Africa where the coral reefs of that region have had significantly less work compared to places like the Great Barrier Reef, or the Caribbean. The uniqueness of our data set spurred a lot of interest from scientists in the room and many collaborations were born.

Our session was one of dozens, and the most popular of the week was obviously the coral bleaching session. In a Tuesday morning talk, Professor Terry Hughes presented his team’s recent surveys of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Sadly, he had to report less optimism than we would have liked. Noting that they found that almost half of the corals located in the top third of the GBR (that's almost 500 mile of reef) had died in just three months. This is an area of the GBR that is generally regarded as free of pollution, and not burdened by heavy fishing. That our best and healthiest reefs can suffer like this is alarming.

What can be done?

Overall the biggest message to create change was for coral reef scientists to not just communicate, but to communicate better. This included being accurate. As John Padolfi highlighted, “We need to make sure we are communicating accurate results including the uncertainties associated with that data and forecasting for the future. Why? Because every time scientists can be shown to be inaccurate even just a little, there is someone waiting to pounce to use that against us, and the media loves a good ‘scientist got it wrong story’.” As a result, he stated, “Therefore our data can sometimes do more harm than good."

This is a great message that Ocean First Education is helping to nurture. In just a few years, our high school students are going to be entering a challenging world where communicating ideas, work, and results is easier than ever before, but we must make sure our young future scientists, conservationists, and policy makers have the strength to stay true to their work, to be bound by their scientific integrity, and do the best work they can. For the future is theirs to protect.

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