Hello Alive! followers. We have a very special segment beginning this month and extending through July in the blog. Sommer Dean, WonderLab Animal Exhibits intern, has been granted the opportunity to study abroad at the University of Wollongong and has offered to blog from down under for us for the next 4 months. In this first edition, Sommer interviewed a local research scientist and dive shop owner to get their perspective on the world wide bleaching event of 2016. For context please read our January 2018 posting, Symbiosis and its role in coral reef building – Sam Couch, WonderLab Animal Exhibits Manager and Alive! author and editor.
The coastline of Australia plays a huge roll on Australian society. With over 70% of Australia’s mainland classified as desert, citizens seek shelter along the coast for sustainability. As of 2001, 85% of Australians lived within 50 kilometers (31 miles) of the coast. You could imagine how much this percentage has increase in the past two decades.
The eastern coast of Australia is not only home to a large percentage of Australia’s population, but it’s also home to a numerous amount of reefs, including the world-renowned Great Barrier Reef. While the number of reefs along the east coast of Australia is not quantified, we can put it in perspective – the Great Barrier Reef stretches 2,300 kilometers (1,430 miles) in length and makes up around 3,000 reefs (indicated in yellow) and this is only in the territory of Queensland. The sustainability of this ecosystem creates a relationship with both the people and the environment that make up the coast of Australia. It is how the human population treats this ecosystem that will determine the success of the underwater environment along the coast.
Although I mention a little bit about myself below, I am currently on exchange at the University of Wollongong in Wollongong, New South Wale in Australia (indicated in red). As I focus in marine science, I have been lucky enough to take a few courses in this field that are not available to me at university back in Indiana. One of these courses is Biodiversity of Marine and Freshwater Organisms taught by marine biologist, Dr. Marian Wong. She is a senior lecturer here at the university and primarily focuses on the behavioral ecology and conservational biology of fishes. Although her focus is primarily fishes, much of her work is conducted on the reefs of the Great Barrier Reef. Her expertise on the subject interested me so I requested an interview with her on her opinion of coral degradation and restoration. I was lucky enough to be granted this opportunity and below is the full interview conducted.
What is the type of research you do with coral reefs?
I do a whole lot that relates to fish, but my main focus is on understanding social behavior and I use fish as model species. With the coral reef fish, I have looked at the formation of social groups – so why fish form groups and once they form groups, how these groups stabilize over time. So you can think of it like in your sorts of peer groups and families groups as one of the reasons why people stay together instead of just leaving and living solitary lives. So that has been the main driving force in my research and I have been doing work on coral reefs since 2003. I have worked on fish, primarily little coral gobies; they are little fish that live inside corals. I also work with anemone fish, which is fish that live inside the anemones.
What sites do you work on?
I primarily work at Lizard Island, which is in the northern Great Barrier Reef – the section that was really heavily hit by coral bleaching in 2016.
So in this time of 2003 when you started working, you’ve really had a hands-on experience seeing the health of the reef throughout the years.
Yea, so I couldn’t help but notice after the mass bleaching events in 2016 and again in 2017, that all these places I used to work in – all these coral reefs I used to work on and the fish I used to work on and the anemones I used to work on and the fish and the gobies – just completely disappeared, especially the coral gobies. So that was a very emotional experience because I had been working at these places year after year and seen the same fish and then suddenly there was just no corals anymore and there was no fish because the fish need the corals to live. So I guess since then and maybe a little bit before I started getting into what determines how susceptible these different fish species are to things such as climate change and anthropogenic effects and also what other factors determine how these species recover. So after these events, I am now monitoring the same sites over time.
How is the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef not as affected as the northern part?
This is just due to the fact that the southern part is at a higher latitude. Generally, the temperature of the water is a lot cooler than the temperature of the water in lower latitudes, that being further north, and so when you have things like global warming coupled at that time with a strong el Niño, it increases the temperature of the water even more. For the northern species, it raises the temperature above what they can tolerate, but for the southern ones it raises the temperature but they are still able to tolerate that.
How did the reefs you have worked on look historically?
There have been other bleaching events. So before, there was a bleaching event that happened in 1998, which was before I had even gone and seen it, but as far as I know it was not as severe as the one we have just had because when I started in 2003, I wouldn’t see a single bleached coral. You would go out snorkeling for days and eight hours every day and there was not a single bleached coral and it was all really healthy and of course there are natural threats to coral reefs such as crown of thorn starfish which is a natural predator of coral so they’ll occasionally be big increases in the starfish populations and they will come and eat a whole bunch of coral, but corals always manage to cope with that because they have evolved to deal with that kind of thing.
How has the reef changed? Is it mainly just bleaching that has occurred at Lizard Island or are you also noticing other diseases as well?
There are probably still the same diseases prevalent that there always were but the issue at the Great Barrier Reef, particularly at the northern sites like Lizard Island, was that before this bleaching there were two major cyclones and those damaged the reef quite heavily. A lot of the corals were broken and thrown and once they are covered in sand they die. But I went back after the two cyclones and there were still a lot of healthy coral that were in relatively good shape that were not so heavily impacted. It really is the bleaching that no coral can really escape from. It’s not like a localized event; it’s just a general warming of the temperatures. So the reefs have always been, even historically, subject to periods where they have been damaged by certain things such as storms or crown of thorns outbreaks. A lot of reefs in various areas, particularly coastal reefs, are subject to sedimentation from runoff from the land – soil erosion, those sorts of things. But usually the reefs that are further away are still fine but the thing with global warming is that it doesn’t differentiate between where the reef actually is, it is just a generalized warming and all corals that are susceptible to that elevated temperature are likely to bleach.
Have you been back to Lizard Island this year?
Yea, so we went back in February and the reef still looks as damaged as ever. We were doing transects to see whether the coral gobies were coming back at all. We did find some, so there are still some types of coral that managed to survive but the vast majority of the branching coral have died. However, certain species are still there and in those species of coral we still see some coral gobies, so they are not completely gone from Lizard Island, it’s just night and day in comparison to how many there were before.
Do you plan on going back this year?
I have two new PhD students starting on the surveys we are conducting so they will be going back there for future years to see the progress. But they too will also be comparing what we see up there with what we see in the more southern reefs where the temperatures are a little bit cooler and they will compare what the species composition is like.
What are some leading theories in what has caused these changes? We have primarily discussed global warming, but are there any other theories we aren’t looking at as much?
Not really. We’ve got temperature warming but that is always coupled with what’s known as ocean acidification, so that in itself is going to start eroding calcium carbonate skeletons of not just corals but other marine invertebrates as well. Those two together are often known as the evil twins because they come in pairs and a lot of research now is trying to investigate what are the relative effects of those two processes, so I think that is probably where the main issues are currently lying. There is also everything on microplastic research, so that is probably having an impact, particularly if smaller fish and invertebrates are consuming these plastics, that’s getting passed up into the food chain, so that is again another area of concern.
Is it just the temperature change that is keeping the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef healthier from the northern part?
Yes, definitely. It is mainly just the fact that temperatures are lower. However, in 2017 we had that second bleaching event, and in that event the corals in the central part of the Great Barrier Reef started bleaching. That’s a worry because its starting to creep down to the southern reefs which is why there is a bit of urgency to see what is in the southern reefs which are relatively pristine at the moment so we can go and get a baseline of what is there. If any bleaching does start to creep down south because of warming temperatures or because of strengthening of east Australian current which brings the warm water down from the north to the south – if that strengthens, then water temperatures will grow higher and the southern corals would potentially be in sort of jeopardy, so that is the next focus. But hopefully it won’t happen. When we were at Lizard [island], we saw little tiny baby corals coming back to the reefs, so they are starting to regenerate. But the issue is it’s the rate at which these warming events happen. So if there isn’t another one for the next ten years then these baby corals will have the opportunity to grow into bigger corals and at that point the fish that I work on, the coral gobies, will be happy to live in them because they don’t live in anything too small. But there is going to be a lag in the time we see these coral regenerate and when we see fish come back. The corals might come back but there will be quite some time before the fish come back as well.
Do you think it is reversible?
Yea, if we all are a lot more conscience and more importantly, politically make the right decisions then we can at least slow down the warming that is happening. They will restore if they are given the chance. But that is the big “if”. These ecosystems are quite resilient as we see from these baby corals that are already coming back, so if they are given that chance and if bleaching events don’t happen for a while then I think we can get that ecosystem back. Whether or not it is in that exact same form as it was before, we don’t know. As things come back certain corals might do better than other corals and so the whole dynamic of the ecosystem might be a bit different but hopefully we will get corals coming back so the fish associated with and feed on the corals will come back as well.
What can we as people do to help?
Generally, avoid things like over-consuming. With respect to voting, vote for political parties who at least have that on their agenda or at least have an idea for preservation of the environment. Try and reduce our impacts on the reef in other ways, for example through pollution. If you go out to the GBR to visit, make sure you don’t stand on the corals or break them because a lot of people don’t even realize that they are alive and they think they are rocks, so try to minimize other stresses to the reef. Also, make sure to tell people about the reefs and get information out there such as blogs or talking to your friends to raise awareness.
Does UOW have any initiative for the reef?
Not specifically for the reef but we do have what is called the Center for Sustainable Ecosystem Solutions, which is part of the school of biological sciences and it is comprised of a bunch of us researches and biologists who do some kind of research aimed at helping to promote sustainable use of ecosystems and preservation of ecosystems. A lot of researchers do look at the impacts of climate change but it is not necessarily on just the reef, it’s on a little bit of everything affected.
The scientific perspective Dr. Wong provided really made me further my student opinion on reef sustainability and the efforts in place to learn and preserve it. This newfound knowledge made me think – what other perspectives are out there that could add to my understanding of reef ecosystems. Dive shop owners are a great source of knowledge on local reefs. Their career consists of diving almost everyday to show their guests the wonders of their local diving. Due to this, those in the dive shop industry obtain a large database of mental pictures of what is old and new to their reefs. Wanting to get a dive shops opinion on reef sustainability, I took to the local dive shop in Wollongong, New South Wales to see if and what they were seeing was similar to Dr. Wong. Although this is not the same locality as the Great Barrier Reef, it provides a broad understanding of what we are looking at reef wise along the eastern coast. Below is the full interview I was granted the opportunity of having with dive shop owner, Suzanne.
How long have you been working in the dive shop industry?
My husband and I opened up this shop 43 years ago. We are actually one of the longest ran dive shops in all of Australia.
What kind of diving does your company do?
We do both shore diving and boat diving. Boat diving consists of temperate reef dives, so instead of having things such as soft corals we have more hard corals, sponges, sea spiders, ect. We have lots of life, just a more temperate environment in comparison to the tropics.
Because your business has been around for 43 years, I am sure you have seen the reefs all over in such different conditions. Are you seeing any of that to be prominent in the reefs you visit locally?
No, I do not think it is as prominent down here. I don’t know why however. Out of all that has been going on, out of the islands we visit we see less fish life. We definitely have not been seeing the big schools of fish that used to be there or they are at least more rare to see. This I would say has been caused due to overfishing more so than due to the reefs. Bushrangers Bay, which is 30 minutes south of Wollongong, years ago used to not be part of a reserve and everyone would overfish it and it got to the point where it was really barren, but now it is part of a reserve and it took about five years, but you would not believe the life on it now.
What is the coastline range of dive sites you take your divers?
For local diving, our range is from here in Wollongong all the way down an hour south to Kiama. We do often take people up north to Syndey, although it is an hour and a half drive. We also take big trips way up and down the coast on weekends such as to Jervis Bay, where our shop originated.
Would you say that the reefs themselves are fairly similar to how they were in years past?
Definitely, yes. We are not seeing nearly as much, if not at all the detriment to our reefs as the Great Barrier Reef is.
Have you done a lot of diving on the Great Barrier Reef?
Yes, but not that much. Most of our diving has taken place in other areas. We have gone up there for some trips by request of our divers but not a great deal.
Based on what we have heard through mass media, scientific papers, and your own opinion of the reef from experience, do you think the damage on the reef is reversible?
Well yes, because that is what coral reefs do. What I have seen from areas of reefs that have regenerated is that it is possible to regenerate. It takes time and it means putting policies in place to stop the damage continuing and such, but I think yes, it will regenerate. And the scientific opinion is that there are a lot of signs that point to regeneration as well.
Have you seen any changes in diver abundance in recent years based on mass media’s televising opinion that the reefs are dying?
Not really. A lot of people are aware of it and ask about it, but we actually see a lot of our divers come in to do beach clean ups such as the harbor clean ups we put on.
Are there any other programs you put on or that you are apart of for helping local reefs and beaches?
We always encourage our divers on any dive to pick up rubbish found. We also have done some work with the universities such as the biological department dealing with conservation projects to spread awareness to their students. We are just sensible about the topic and we try to spread awareness to our students and divers.
From Cairns to Jervis Bay, we are seeing two drastically different reef conditions. Some locations are graveyards, while others are prosperous, beautiful coral gardens. While Dr. Wong and Suzanne have two different perspectives of the reefs, they both find common ground in one thing – it is up to us to allow these reefs to restore. Let our curiosity of the underwater world drive us to preserve it.
I would like to acknowledge and thank both Dr. Marian Wong and Suzanne for their time and knowledge on the subject. If you would like to read more of Dr. Wong’s work or about the Great Barrier Reef, please check out her latest feature in the article “Losing Nemo? Wider effects of mass Great Barrier Reef bleaching emerge”. If you are ever in New South Wales and are looking for a dive shop to experience the local diving, please pay a visit to United Divers located in Wollongong.
Sommer Dean writing to you here. I am an undergraduate Animal Behavior student studying at Indiana University. For the past 6 weeks I have been on exchange in Wollongong, Australia where I am furthering my studies in their marine science program. By both attending a university and living in a land-locked state, I have tried to get my feet wet in the marine science field (pun intended) as much as possible by participating in the Dominican Republic underwater science field school for the past two years provided by IU, as well as studying in the Florida Keys to learn as much as I could about scuba diving. While on exchange, I have been given the opportunity to blog my underwater experience for the next few months. Being born in 1997 during the first Year of the Reef, it seems only fitting that I am able to contribute my knowledge and experience as we embark in the third Year of the Reef. My absolute favorite underwater species is the shark, particularly the Great White. There is something so fascinating about their behavior and power as an apex predator and I hope to expand on this fascination by studying them in the future!