Climate change set to devastate coral reefs

Cornell Chronicle

As greater atmospheric carbon dioxide boosts sea temperatures, tropical corals face a bleak future. New climate model projections show that conditions are likely to increase the frequency and severity of coral disease outbreaks, reports a team of researchers led by Cornell scientists, published today (May 4) in Nature Climate Change.

Conserving coral reefs is crucial to maintaining the biodiversity of our oceans and sustaining the livelihoods of the 500 million people that depend on coral reefs. Coral reefs are also important to the global economy, as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates the world’s coral reef systems are worth about $30 billion annually.

In the agricultural world, scientists have been modeling disease risk and outbreak timing with weather for decades. However, these new model outputs of future conditions on reefs are the first to examine how expected changes in climate affect the risk of diseases among wildlife in the marine environment. The research team also compares their model outputs for coral disease with expected future changes in the more widely publicized impact of coral bleaching.

“Perhaps more than any findings to date, these results indicate that increases in the prevalence and severity of coral diseases will be a major future driver of decline and changes in coral reef community composition, and at least as great a driver as coral bleaching,” said Jeffrey Maynard, a postdoctoral researcher in ecology and evolutionary biology and lead author of “Projections of Climate Conditions That Increase Coral Disease Susceptibility and Pathogen Virulence.”

Warmer conditions increase the susceptibility of corals to the pathogens that cause disease and increase pathogen abundance and virulence. The climate stress compounds the strain caused by human activities near reefs, such as marine pollution, sedimentation caused by coastal development and overfishing. The research team examined the implications of both of these types of stress to corals to produce global maps of disease risk. Coral reef managers and policymakers now can use these maps to target actions to reduce stress on coral reefs and to test approaches to reduce disease impact. “This is the first attempt to project the effects of synergism between climate and human-related stressors on risk of coral disease,“ said senior author Drew Harvell, Cornell professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

The scientists say that the likely future impact of coral disease on coral reef community composition and condition so far has been underappreciated, which they hope to change by publishing this scientific paper.

There are many areas where disease causes more coral mortality than coral bleaching. For this reason, Maynard and the other scientists suggest warning systems be built into coral disease response plans to help conservationists and managers reduce disease impacts. “To develop these warning systems, there is a vital need to expand upon the current, limited suite of tools that forecast conditions conducive to coral disease outbreaks. This paper is a start in that direction,” said Maynard.

The NOAA Climate Program Office and National Science Foundation funded the study.

This story was originally published in the Cornell Chronicle.

Overfishing Numbers At All-Time Low

Happy Ocean News!

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released last week amazing news concerning overfishing and the state of America’s fisheries. In its 2014 Status of Stocks report, NMFS reported that the number of U.S. domestic fishing stocks listed as overfished or threatened by overfishing declined to the fewest number since 1997. NOAA has only been compiling the report since 1997, so that’s the lowest number yet!

The percentage of stocks facing overfishing or already overfished has actually been decreasing since 2007, even though fishing is increasing. This is such a positive rebuilding progress for the US’s fisheries.

NOAA’s report highlights that three fishing stocks were rebuilt to target levels in 2014: Gulf of Maine/Cape Hatteras butterfish, Gulf of Mexico gag grouper and Mid-Atlantic Coast golden tilefish. Including those three, 37 stocks have been rebuilt since 2000.

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Behind this success is the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, which was initially passed in 1976 to oversee fishing in federal waters. The Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 amended the original legislation to define overfishing, require regular assessment of overfished populations and mandate plans for the recovery of overfished populations as well as the reduction of bycatch—unwanted marine life caught in the process of fishing.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act really shows that it is possible for lawmakers, fishermen and scientists to work together for efficient and successful resource-management for a sustainable future. While this is fantastic and encouraging news, we cannot stop now, and we must keep working for a complete recovery of the US stocks and for better conservation of the marine resources. 

(Photo Source)

The Black Fish. - Sometimes one image says it all. The head of an endangered bluefin tuna, floating along with plastic pollution in a Mediterranean port. The Black Fish crew are working in the region this summer to document and expose illegal fishing practices. Follow updates at 

This reality breaks my heart. The plight of the ocean and its precious creatures being very close to it.

Photo © Chris Grodotzki / The Black Fish

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