I’ve been thinking and chatting on Facebook with Jeffrey Cohen and others about this editorial in yesterday’s Times about the collapse of coral reefs. The key point, by Roger Bradbury from ANU in Canberra, is that the catastrophe is today, not tomorrow:
IT’S past time to tell the truth about the state of the world’s coral reefs, the nurseries of tropical coastal fish stocks. They have become zombie ecosystems, neither dead nor truly alive in any functional sense, and on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation. There will be remnants here and there, but the global coral reef ecosystem — with its storehouse of biodiversity and fisheries supporting millions of the world’s poor — will cease to be.
It’s very sad to sea such beauty breaking, but the author is right that denial is no good response. There’s lots of fear and anxiety surrounding the new ocean that’s being built with plastics and jellyfish. But it’s important to remember that things are never what they used to be. The coral-filled wonders of Jacques Cousteau films are gone or going, but so are schools of North Atlantic cod and the incredibly dense oyster ecosystem that used to fill New York harbor. Oceans don’t stay the same, any more than anything or anyplace else. We need to stop expecting stasis out of natural systems.
We can still love an ocean full of “remnants” of coral wonders and a “algal-dominated hard ocean bottom.” A rapprochement with jelly is, I believe, already in progress. We don’t yet love jellyfish the way we love Nemo-fish or dolphins, but we’ve seen gorgeous jellyfish displays in aquariums from Monterray to Mystic, plus jellyfish sushi is making inroads, and not just in Japan. An ocean with a jelly-face is not what we’re used to, but it’s surely part of our future. I remember swimming through a cloud of non-stinging jellies the last time I swam in the Jersey shore where I grew up. I ended up thinking it wasn’t so horrible —
Jellyfish are the ocean’s future, scientists tell us. They are the species that will do best in the ocean that’s coming: oxygen-deprived, warm, depleted of fish. It’s a gruesome thought, a violation of our long shared history of ocean aesthetics. But swimming through the jelly-cloud early Wed morning, with a solitary older fisherman just up the beach on a cloudless day, it seemed as if swimmers & jellies could manage. The feel of them between my fingers was foreign, slimy, a little disturbing — but also something I could get used to.
The title of the Times editorial, I think, is too stark. Surely we know enough about ecology to know that things never go away. Our present and future appears less a world w/o reefs than a world with remnants.
I have some hope for fishing-free zones, which seem to be restoring reef habitat faster than predicted, though doubtless the restoration is less than full, and it is challenging to expand such oceanic preserves. But I don’t think our only response to oceanic change should be nostalgia.
For some more comments and commentary, including (at the bottom of the post), a great response by Carl Safina, author of Song for a Blue Ocean , here’s a link to the NYT blog follow-up, Reefs in the Anthropocene. Safina closes with a carefully measured point:
The science is clear that reefs are in many places degraded and in serious trouble. But no science has, or likely can, determine that reefs and all their associated non-coral creatures are unequivocally, equally and everywhere, completely doomed to total non-existence. In fact, much science suggests they will persist in some lesser form. Bleak prospects have been part of many dramatic turnarounds, and, who knows, life may, as usual—with our best efforts—find a way.
Alongside which I’ll close with one of the most non-maritime poets I can think of, Robert Frost, in “The Oven Bird” —
The question he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.