Keynote Address by the NOAA Administrator at the International Coral Reef Symposium 2012, Cairns, Australia

“From Science to Policy: Using Science to Inform Coral Reef Conservation and Management”

 

International Coral Reef Symposium 2012
Opening Keynote Address
July 9, 2012
As delivered

Jane Lubchenco,
Ph.D. Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA
Administrator

July 9, 2012

Thank you, Bob, and my thanks to Terry Hughes, the other organizers and the sponsors of this conference as well as the traditional owners and custodians of this beautiful place.

Your Excellency, other distinguished participants, fellow scientists and partners, it’s a special treat to participate in ICRS here in Cairns, especially in the wake of Australia’s announcement of plans to create the world’s largest network of marine protected areas. 

The world, its coral reefs and the millions of people that depend upon them need more bold action -- action that is science- and ecosystem-based, action that is embraced locally and nationally, action that values tomorrow as well as today. And we need bold science – science that is use-inspired: i. e., it is cutting-edge but relevant and focused on solutions.

An Eden beneath the waves, coral reefs have been the grocery and pharmacy of people for millenia, their protection against tsunamis and tropical storms, the foundation of cultures, a seemingly infinite source of inspiration, an invaluable library of life’s mysteries, and a rich source of resilience against environmental changes.    

In far too many places around the world, these benefits are gone or are disappearing. Over the past decade alone, threats to reefs have gone from worrisome to dire. Reef ecosystems are changing rapidly and radically, with profound consequences for people.

Mounting pressures on land, along the coast and in the water converge in a perfect storm of threats to reefs and people.  

What’s at stake?

This map, prepared by the World Resources Institute in 2011, depicts the social and economic dependence of 81 countries, 21 island territories and six subnational regions on coral reefs.  The index integrates social and economic information about fisheries employment, nutritional dependence, export value, tourism and shoreline protection – i.e., a variety of benefits provided by coral reefs.  The values range from low to very high.

This information highlights a number of interesting points, but I want to leave you with five key take-home messages:

Preserving coral reefs is about protecting coastal communities:  Reefs make coastal areas more resistant to erosion. Up to 90 percent of the energy from wind-generated waves is absorbed by reef ecosystems.  In Belize alone, coastal protection afforded by reefs and mangroves provides an estimated $231 to $347 million dollars in avoided damages per year.

Preserving coral reefs is about preserving cultures:  Papua New Guinea, for example, is home to approximately 820 different languages and to many people who depend on r
eefs. Losing these reefs puts at risk some of the communities and cultures that gave rise to such diversity.

Preserving coral reefs is about food security:  Thinking about ‘food security’ usually means grains and livestock – food from the land.  But over 2.6 B people (2.6 B!)  depend on seafood for their primary source of protein, including many in developing countries who depend upon reefs.

Preserving coral reefs is about ensuring thriving economies:  It is difficult to put a precise dollar value on many of the benefits provided by coral reef ecosystems, but by any estimate they are globally and locally valuable.  Tourism, reef fisheries and shoreline protection are particularly noteworthy.

Thus far, I’ve mentioned coastal communities, culture, food security and thriving economies…

But most of all, preserving coral reefs is about our collective commitment to one another, to the rest of life on the planet and to our future.

A deadly combination of local and global threats is putting these important ecosystems, their services and their people at risk.

Overfishing, nutrient and chemical pollution, habitat alteration and invasive species continue to threaten reefs. Now, climate change and ocean acidification interact with and exacerbate these other stressors.

Let’s focus for a moment on climate change.

Bleaching events in recent years show potential impacts of warmer waters on reef systems: witness the Caribbean basin in 2005 and the massive bleachings in 2010 from “from Thailand to Texas,” as the NY Times wrote.   Extreme bleaching events kill corals outright. Less extreme events weaken corals, affecting their reproductive potential, growth and calcification, leaving them vulnerable to disease.

If current trends persist, 20 years from now roughly 50 percent -- half!! -- of reefs globally will experience severe bleaching in most years. Looking ahead 50 years, this number could jump to more than 95 percent. 

Many reefs can recover from infrequent and mild bleaching.  But under acute and chronic stress -- especially when coupled with impacts of other stressors -- there is significant risk of irreversible damage to reefs.

And as if this were not sufficiently problematic, climate change’s equally evil twin, ocean acidification has appeared as the “new kid on the block” of stressors on ocean ecosystems.  This global-scale change in the basic chemistry of oceans as a direct result of the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and therefore in the ocean, is a serious threat to most corals.

Of all the marine ecosystems potentially impacted by ocean acidification, coral reefs are perhaps the best understood to date. This ICRS conference will showcase many of the most recent results.

Healthy reefs are more than the lifeline for local communities; healthy coral reefs are a moral imperative for the global community. 

Scientists – YOU and I ! --  with our knowledge of the threats, consequences, and likelihood success of options for solutions, have a particular responsibility to share our findings broadly, develop useful and useable decision-support tools, team up with local communities and industry partners, and help craft practical solutions.  

Your knowledge and your passion are sorely needed.  But your knowledge must be shared in ways that are understandable, credible and relevant to decision-making at multiple levels.  Learning to become bilingual – to speak both the language of science and the language of lay people is a skill more scientists need to learn.  You’ve all heard the phrase ‘learn by doing’?  The same applies to teaching: ‘teach by doing...not by preaching.’

This is, in fact, happening in many parts of the world. Scientists, communities, NGOs, industry and governments are collaborating to develop management solutions that provide for immediate local needs and enable healthy, resilient reefs. These are powerful, hopeful signs, they are simply not at the scale commensurate with the threats.

Reducing carbon emissions is clearly an essential step in achieving healthy oceans and reefs.  But keeping healthy reefs healthy and reversing the degradation in others also requires attention to land-use, nutrient runoff, overfishing and use of destructive fishing gear, coastal development and protection of habitat and biodiversity.   This requires nontraditional partnerships, capacity building, monitoring, and sustained commitment.    

Despite the plethora of pressures facing reefs, there are emerging beacons of hope -- collaborative uses of science on the ground to tackle challenges to coral reefs.  I’d like to highlight a few examples of innovative progress from different parts of the world.  Not surprisingly, I take my examples from areas where my agency, NOAA, is one of the partners. 

One such collaboration involves development and use of technological tools.

NOAA's Coral Reef Watch Program uses satellite data to provide information about current environmental conditions that identify areas at risk for coral bleaching.

The animation I’ll start in a minute shows likely susceptibility to bleaching for areas of the Indo-Pacific for Feb-November 2010.  

This NOAA Coral Reef Watch Bleaching Alert Area product shows accumulated thermal stress levels, with hotter colors indicating greater likelihood of bleaching.  Yellow indicates a ‘Bleaching Watch.’  Orange indicates a ‘Bleaching Warning.’  Red signals a ‘Bleaching Alert Level 1’, i.e., red means that bleaching is likely.  Dark red indicates a ‘Bleaching Alert Level 2’ i.e., that mortality is likely. 

2010 saw some of the highest temperatures and most intense thermal stress on record, second only to the 1997-98 El Niño in its damage.

Note how the patterns of warmer waters and thus likelihood of bleaching changes through the year, with an overall widespread exposure to intense bleaching events distributed across the region.

By July of that year, 2010, bleaching across the region was so severe that it was often challenging to find unbleached corals. These photos are from a reef off Phuket, Thailand show severe bleaching.

Because of the early warning, partners in Australia and in the region were able to mobilize support for a rapid response to monitor the ecological and socio-economic impacts and management response to the event – actions that enable development of ecological and socio-economic survey instruments as the basis of future and faster understanding of ecosystem and community impacts and recovery, including the economic consequences of bleaching.

Warnings also enable management responses that reduce other stressors that interact with bleaching.  For example, in Malaysia and Thailand, early warnings prompted governments to close several Marine Parks to reduce impacts by other stressors.

The economic toll of this bleaching event in three of the countries may have reached $49m-$74m.  

Because of the utility of this decision-support tool to assist management and scientific responses, NOAA scientists have worked with users to make it even more helpful.

Today, NOAA is announcing release of two major updates to Coral Reef Watch:  One provides the probability of bleaching up to four months into the future – with a newly-developed global seasonal outlook system.  The second update improves resolution to a daily 5 km satellite grid for reefs around the world.  NOAA’a Mark Eakin will describe these new products in detail in the session following this one.

Another beacon of hope is the groundbreaking work being conducted in the Coral Triangle.

One in three people in the Coral Triangle depend on coral reefs for daily survival.

This is a story of leadership, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary partnerships across many types of partners, peer learning, and science to develop and implement creative solutions that address food security in the face of climate change and ocean acidification.

Recognizing the vulnerability of food security to reef health and regional solutions, heads of state of the six Coral Triangle countries established a regional ocean governance initiative: the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security (CTI-CFF).  The initiative aims to safeguard the Coral Triangle’s unparalleled biodiversity, to protect food security for the 120 million in the region, and to enhance the capacity to adapt to a changing climate.

ICRS will highlight emerging outcomes in science and management.  Here’s a glimpse of the substantive progress being made in this region.

The U.S. stands with Australia and the Asian Development Bank in the Coral Triangle Initiative. The U.S. government offers financial, political and political support. NOAA became one of three implementing organizations in the US CTI Support Program (US CTI), a 5-year, $42 million, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and US Department of State-funded program. Along with Australia and the Asian Development Bank, we have directed substantial technical assistance and resources to supporting CTI’s launch and early years because of the significance of the region to biodiversity, food security, global security, and because of what CTI stands to contribute to the field of practice.

CTI-CFF set forth a goal of implementing an ecosystem approach to fisheries management throughout the region.  A major question for governments and people in the region to consider is what local or national marine and coastal managers can do to protect food security in the face of climate change. And CTI-CFF set out to harmonize region-wide early action planning to tackle the issue.

Though work is being conducted across five priority areas – seascapes, Ecosystem Approaches to Fishery Management, climate change adaptation, MPA management, and threatened and endangered species, I will focus on progress in EAFM and climate change adaptation.

  • On EAFM:  This spring delegates from six coral triangle countries agreed to a regional EAFM policy framework, the first of its kind. 

  • On the climate change adaptation:   New tools and approaches to the field of practice were developed. Last year, the CTI agreed to a Region-wide early action plan (REAP) for climate change adaptation, and since that time, regional experts developed an integrated toolkit for Local Early Action Planning (LEAP) for climate change adaptation, working with local communities and marine practitioners to develop early action plans, build resilience in local communities, and cascade such approaches across the region.
  • New science will be coming out of the first ocean acidification baseline monitoring efforts in the Coral Triangle.  This new science will inform policy and management decisions.   In March 2012, the first equipment was deployed in the Verde Island Passage, and already, partners in the Philippines replicated these sites two-fold in Tubataha marine park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and in Bolinau near the University of the Philippines marine laboratory.   The first OA baseline monitoring equipment in Timor-Leste will be launched this fall, through a similar partnership between NOAA, USAID, and the TL Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

  • Progress is being made on integrating climate change and OA into EAFM. NOAA, Conservation International, USAID, and Connecticut Sea Grant convened a writeshop of CT regional experts to develop guidelines for fisheries managers to incorporate considerations of climate change and ocean acidification into EAFM.  The results of this writeshop will be presented this week. One of the experts, Dr. Jamal Jompa, is presenting a keynote to ICRS this afternoon. Next year, NOAA and US CTI partners expect to launch trainings and peer-to-peer exchanges with fisheries managers on these guidelines, management practices, and science for decision-making. These guidelines are new to the field of practice – and will be extremely useful in our US coral reef jurisdictions.

CTI-CFF’s leadership, with its peer-to-peer learning and cooperation, has catalyzed innovation in the fields of resilience, EAFM, and management of ecosystem services.

The significance of CTI-CFF’s progress is three-fold:

  • This is perhaps the broadest and deepest engagement in regional ocean governance to date.

  • It is significant to the field of practice: EAFM has largely been theoretical until very recently.   To achieve significant advancements at the six-country regional level, national levels, and local levels in the span of one month is astounding.

  • This is one of the few examples of integrating adaptation to climate change and ocean acidification with fisheries’ food security.

Now for a different example, let’s go to the U.S. Florida Keys and look at the power of no-take marine reserves as a management tool.

At the southern tip of Florida, the Tortugas Ecological Reserve (TER) is the largest fully protected marine reserve in the U.S.  It is part of the US National Marine Sanctuaries, under NOAA.  The Dry Tortugas are located at the westernmost extent of the Florida Keys. The area contains diverse habitats, including seagrass beds, coral reef habitats, (e.g., patch reefs, fore reefs, intermediate, and deep reefs), and hardbottom areas.)

The Tortugas reefs also boast the healthiest coral in the region. In the area known as “Sherwood Forest,” coral cover often exceeds 30%, compared to an average of 10% elsewhere in the Florida Keys. The well-developed reef is interspersed with gorgonian-forests, sponges, and black corals.

Significant degradation of the Keys’ marine environment is the result, in part, of dramatic population growth throughout south Florida. Improperly handled wastewater and stormwater contribute to the degradation of nearshore water quality. Seagrasses and corals are destroyed by boat groundings. Overfishing of dozens of key species has depleted reef fish biomass and spawning potential. Intensive non-consumptive activities, such as snorkeling and scuba diving, also place significant pressures on coral reef resources that are exacerbated by the over three million visitors to the region annually. 

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was established in 2001.  Five types of use-zones were established. The Tortuga Ecological Reserve, within the Sanctuary, was implemented after a successful, three-year collaborative effort.

Scientists and stakeholders worked together to design the reserve. Science informed decision-making, and played a crucial role in balancing short-term economic concerns with potential long-term economic and ecological benefits. Traditional knowledge was provided by users of the area.

Now, 11 years later, significant changes have been documented.

Black grouper, a key reef fish in the Florida marine ecosystem, is one of the success stories. Results are shown on this slide: relative frequencies of different sizes of black grouper under different conditions.  The three panels on the left show surveys in 1999 and 2000, before the changes were implemented.  The three panels on the right show data from 2008.  The top pair of panels are in the no-take areas; the middle panels are those open to recreational but not commercial fishing; the bottom panels are fished both recreationally and commercially.  The grey areas denote fish smaller than the minimum legal size of 60 cm (24”); blue are those larger than the minimum legal size.

Within seven years of the reserve being established, the legal-sized black groupers almost doubled, from 36 % in 2001 to 64 % in 2008.   

In the recreational fishing-only area, larger black grouper increased from 8% to 37.3%.

In the fished areas where commercial and recreational fishing takes place, relatively little change took place in the larger size classes of the black grouper population, 18.8% in 2008 compared to 25% in 1999.

Two other species, yellowtail snapper and red grouper showed similar trends under the three types of protection.

Results from this study document that the large and ecologically diverse Tortugas Ecological Reserve has had positive effects on populations of some targeted groupers and snappers, in conjunction with concurrent changes to State and Federal fishing regulations. 

Like fishery closures everyplace, these were highly controversial, with dire warning about economic impacts of restrictions.  Results indicate these fears were unfounded.  The earnings of Tortugas fishermen have not been adversely impacted by the closures.

Commercial fishermen did not experience any financial loss during the first five years of the reserve. They did, however, shift their efforts away from the Tortugas area towards fishing grounds closer to home, a change that was primarily due to increases in fuel costs. The actual changes in catch and revenues received by fishermen from the Tortugas area varied considerably depending on fishery.

Reef fish catch from the Tortugas area actually increased after establishment of the reserve and showed an increasing trend. To make up for displacement from the reserve, TER fishermen found new un-fished areas that were not previously “known” fishing grounds.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Condition Report 2011 shows that human actions — such as poaching, boat groundings, and pollution — continue to degrade habitat and living resources of the sanctuary, but may be improved with long-term management efforts, regulatory compliance, and community involvement.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuaries’ zoning and regulatory review is underway, especially since emerging threats such as climate change and ocean acidification were not considered in the earlier regulations.

And my final example of on-the-ground successes that provide models to emulate comes from Puerto Rico.

The suite of problems facing coral reef ecosystems from land-based sources of pollution (LBSP) is broad.  Sediment, nutrients and other pollutants, including chemical and bacterial contaminants, from a variety of land-based activities are transported in surface waters, runoff, groundwater seepage and atmospheric deposition into coastal waters.

To better protect coral reefs off Guánica, Puerto Rico, the U.S. developed a watershed management plan to identify land-based sources of pollution and the actions needed to address them. Puerto Rico’s Guánica watershed monitoring and restoration project was formalized in 2009 as the first U..S Coral Reef Task Force Watershed Partnership Initiative Site.

This slide lists some of the issues in the Guánica watershed.  The watershed is dominated by forested and agricultural land-use, with urban regions along the coast.  Sediment transport in the watershed is exacerbated by land clearing in coffee-growing regions, combined with steep slopes, high mean annual rainfall, regular hurricanes and tropical storms.

The Watershed Partnership is applying the ‘ridge to reef’ approach in communities.

The focus of this multi-year project is to evaluate, design and implement watershed restoration projects to reduce the effects of land-based source pollution. 

The partnership has yielded substantial progress over the last few years. Below are a few examples of the partnership’s success.

  • Comprehensive baseline monitoring of the coral reef areas was completed in 2011.

  • 1,200 acres of sun-grown coffee was converted to shade-grown coffee.

  • Stream bank stabilization and removal of debris are taking place.

  • Restoration of the Guánica Lagoon is at a 75% design level, currently working with the local community to incorporate their comments and address their concerns. Lagoon restoration would reduce an estimated 8,760 tons of sediment, 108 tons of total nitrogen, and over 8 tons of total phosphorus annually from entering the nearby coral reef system.

  • Funding has been secured to complete the engineering designs and construction of 6-10 acres of treatment wetlands adjacent to the Guánica Sewage Treatment Plant. Tertiary treatment will remove 15,500 lbs. of nitrogen and over 3,000 lbs. of phosphorus on an annual basis.  Construction will begin next year.

  • We have seed funds to develop and test regionally-adapted hydroseed and erosion control practices to vegetate large swaths of bare soil on both public and private lands. 

Watershed Restoration is a long-term commitment that needs to begin with committed partners. 

Capacity building is also a big part of watershed restoration. Community outreach, education activities, and watershed management training helps empower local communities to become natural resource stewards that over time will lead to a reduction of land-based sources of pollution to nearby coral reefs. These efforts cannot be accomplished with top-down approaches, e.g., at just the federal government.  Success depends upon incorporation of regional support into watershed restoration efforts. Most importantly, the community should help inform and be involved in the implementation of restoration efforts through the engagement of federal and agencies and local NGOs. 

Watershed restoration efforts in Guánica are far from over and even if partners are successful in implementing each of the core actions it will be years before significant improvement to coral reef health is detected. 

These three examples are intended to provide a sense of hope amidst the urgency of the challenges to reefs and they provide insights into the way forward.

First:  Science is not only vital for providing information, tools, and services for managing coral reefs, but a powerful tool for shaping policy and management of coral reef ecosystems.  Science does not tell society what to do, but it should give them the information, tools, understanding of trade-offs of different consequences that facilitate smart decision-making. 

Second:  Leadership is essential for successful action.  In the Coral Triangle and in Guánica, we see the impressive role that leadership plays in initiating and sustaining action. Leadership within the scientific community, leadership within governments at multiple levels, leadership within NGOs and funders, leadership within industry. 

Third:  Partnerships enable, leverage and create the conditions for success.  The number of examples is growing to show that each of us – government at all levels, community stakeholders, NGOs, funders, academic scientists and others -- each plays pivotal roles in taking science to action. 

Fourth:  Both leaders and partners must understand that the issues we face are long-term issues.  To solve them, we must be in the game for the long haul.  That does not mean being complacent, for the urgency is real; it means being willing to engage in a sustained fashion.

This meeting is timely.  We need bold science and bold action.   There is a vital role for governments to play, but equally importantly is the role of academia, civil society, and industry.  Harnessing that collective commitment is underway – but it remains to be seen if changes will be rapid and substantial enough. Her Excellency noted in her powerful opening remarks that there is a significant gap between the accelerating pace of degradation and the rate of effective response.  

Each of you here can influence the rate of response by activating your science. 

You can influence the trajectory of reefs. 

I’m hopeful that the results and ideas discussed here this week will be put to practical use, drawing on the keys to success that I’ve highlighted. 

I invite you to do more than create new knowledge.  Share it! Put it to use with partners and a sustained engagement.  

In short, activate your science.

Thank you.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco
Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere
and NOAA Administrator