“Picture of Health”

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The Story

“Picture of Health”
by Paul Tullis
BioGraphic, May 23, 2018

The Pitch

Corals have been taking a beating lately. Unchecked coastal development pollutes them, IUU fishing depletes them, CO2 emissions alter their chemistry, and historic ocean warming has in recent years caused back-to-back bleaching events that devastated reefs worldwide, including potentially as much as half of the Great Barrier Reef, according to Australia’s National Coral Reef Taskforce.

But a group of biologists at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography thinks at least some reefs have the potential to survive another (inevitable) mass bleaching event, and they’re working to figure out which ones those are, why they’re more resilient, and how to transfer whatever properties they possess that are saving them–be they biological, managerial, or environmental–to other coral reefs and coral species. They have just initiated the 100 Island Challenge, an experiment using cutting-edge technology to survey reefs that will provide local communities with the knowledge they need to best manage and preserve the source of their livelihoods.

Co-Principal investigator Jennifer Smith, 41, is acting on preliminary evidence that local reefs with good water quality and healthy fisheries are more likely to recover quickly from bleaching. And she points to many coral species that have adapted to warm seas, such as those in lagoons that experience temperature spikes daily and seasonally. Palmyra Atoll, for instance, was almost unrecognizable 8 months after a major bleaching event; Smith, who has photographed corals of Palmyra annually for the last 8 years, hypothesizes that the lack of human stressors and the island’s topography played a role in enabling its corals to recover so dramatically. Her group has identified 100 reef sites, from the East China Sea to the Lesser Antilles, to serve as a sample of all reef types across a range of ocean productivity, human population density, and island elevation. The team will swim 100-square-meter plots with HD cameras, photographing a contiguous area that can be modeled back in the lab using 3D-printers and custom software. They’ll also take a fish census at each site, employing the same transect method used to count elephants in Tanzania. By placing a permanent marker at each of the plots, the researchers will be able to revisit them at pre-determined intervals and repeat these painstaking processes to see how they’ve changed. By comparing temperature, water quality, fish population, coral species, and other variables across the sites, they hope to discover why.

The research isn’t merely academic. Smith will partner with local fisheries managers and environmental NGOs at each site to get the imagery and models into the hands of the people who depend on reefs for their livelihoods. A strategic partnership recently developed with a marine lab and conservation group on Jamaica’s north coast will function as a case study for sharing technology and resources for reef protection and recovery.

Collecting such finely attenuated data while under water presents unique challenges. Custom-made writing slates and sign language are among the tools of the trade, and Smith and her team are aware of the dangers. Everyone swims with a buddy, and they are trained to keep watch of where the boat is at all times: A change in tide or wake from a bigger boat can send a disorienting wall of cloudy water at researchers weighted down by 50 pounds of gear.

I don’t have specifics yet on where or when the next expedition will be that I could tag along on, but Smith has promised to coordinate such an opportunity.

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