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Institute for Ocean Conservation Science Sponsors Its First Lecture at Stony Brook

Dr. Robert H. Richmond of University of Hawaii Discusses Coral Reef Health
February 12, 2009

The Institute for Ocean Conservation Science welcomed University of Hawaii coral expert Dr. Robert H. Richmond to speak at its first sponsored scientific seminar since becoming a part of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. More than 60 professors, staff, graduate students and undergraduates gathered for the lunchtime lecture on Feb. 9th to hear Dr. Richmond address the issues surrounding and harnessing coral reef biodiversity. Dr. Richmond is a recipient of the prestigious Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, recognizing him as marine conservation pioneer and awarding him with $150,000 to continue his marine science conservation efforts. Recalling the years when he started his journey as a marine conservationist, walking the halls of Stony Brook as a master’s and PhD student, Dr. Richmond set a comfortable and engaging mood.

Dr. Richmond began by describing the biology of corals, noting their important symbiotic relationship with their live-in zooxanthellae. Zooxanthellae are single-celled plants essential for the corals’ overall survival, expressing their bright color and supporting the coral with food. He stressed the need to treat coral and zooxanthellae as a united whole when constructing solutions to the many problems that threaten corals today, including erosion and sedimentation, overfishing, carelessness of recreational visitors and coral bleaching.

Dr. Richmond explained sedimentation as “the death that keeps on killing.” It is a continuous process caused by runoff from deforestation and land development that limits corals’ access to their needed resources, such as nutrients and sunlight, throughout their entire life. Overfishing limits a reef’s biodiversity and in turn, impacts its health. In reducing the number and variety of fish species existent on the reef, we limit the reef’s natural balance and diminish its ability to sustain itself. Dr. Richmond also noted that well-intentioned tourists, especially divers, snorkelers, and beach-walkers, can “love [the] reef to death.” Some tourists don’t know the damage they cause when they touch coral, stand on it underwater in their flippers, move something while underwater to get a better picture, or walk atop coral flats near to shore. The reef’s health suffers incrementally as a result.

Coral bleaching was described by Dr. Richmond as “a relationship gone wrong.” Reefs are very sensitive to stress and live within an extremely narrow temperature range. The coral animal (host) becomes stressed due to increased water temperatures, and the zooxanthellae either move out to escape inhospitable conditions or are kicked out by their host. In an interesting reference to other ongoing research, Dr. Richmond noted that some corals have varying stress levels and coping mechanisms depending on their species and geographic location. He explained coral genetics studies, sponsored by the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science and others are underway to understand why some corals adapt better than others.

Dr. Richmond pointed out that individuals can manage the extent of their impact on coral animals, and said that we must take appropriate scientific, social and political actions that fit within the ocean’s often sensitive balance. Our current modes of action are often not effective, he said. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), for example, are management tools that have been considered a useful way to preserve and protect a marine environment. MPAs often have limited positive impact on coral reefs, though, because they are artificial boundaries unseen by Mother Nature. The boundaries do not block the influx of common coral reef stressors like rising water temperature, pollution and sedimentation. Dr. Richmond also said that the list of rules and preventative regulations attached with MPAs often initiate “finger pointing” and argumentative battles between policy holders and local communities. The fighting is continuously unproductive and protection often non-existent. His belief has been the fuel behind his innovative approach to his own work with coral conservation.

Dr. Richmond has been conducting coral research in Micronesia and Guam for 18 years. He is experimenting with a method of conservation involving community members. They have in turn become increasingly and appropriately sensitive to their surrounding environment. His innovative approach supports his idea that the community’s needs for reef resources can be met while maintaining the reef’s diversity and health., Dr. Richmond gave a “foot-locker class” in Palau, supplying the community with, and teaching community volunteers to use, a variety of scientific instruments. It is a win-win situation. The community gets involved in the research, gathering data and seeing the changes over time as different policies are implemented. Dr. Richmond can then take the information community assistants have gathered and use it for his own research and monitoring. Dr. Richmond involves the community with his work and in turn, their involvement strengthens their interest in the cause to conserve the reef.

Dr. Richmond’s integrated work with the community has been a highly effective way to constructively address the issues of coral biodiversity. Communities in tropical climates such as these often rely on fishing on or near coral reefs for their survival. Taking away their ability to fish in these areas would be devastating to the community. Tribal leaders have contacted Dr. Richmond because of his appreciation for a balance between the fishing needs of the community and the protection of the reef. This is why, Dr. Richmond explained, he prefers his method to MPAs: personal responsibility is being directly recognized and put into the hands of those that work with the reef the most, the community.

Dr. Richmond said he gathers inspiration from his hero, Dr. Doolittle, who had a special talent to not only talk to animals, but to also listen. Dr. Richmond feels that listening is one of the most powerful tools of nature. “A coral reef should sound like downtown, it should be busy and buzzing with activity,” he said. This is another reason the local community is in the best position to help maintain the reef. Locals, who have spent the longest amount of time on the reef, are the most in tune to hearing the changes on the reef, he said.

Dr. Richmond prefers working on the community level because policies can be integrated more quickly and efficiently than in complex government structures; the reef and its people can reap more immediate benefits. The policies are being designed in part by those who implement them, and change follows close behind. Skills and approaches can be incorporated into the tribal teachings and further ensure the future of the community and the surrounding reef. Dr. Richmond pointed out, “We are sometimes our own worst enemy in communicating.” Working on the community level eliminates smoke and mirrors from the conversation and allows the bigger picture to be communicated clearly, he said.

Dr. Richmond is also very engaged with the community beyond his research projects, opening his laboratory doors to anyone who is interested in his work. Dr. Richmond spoke about how he has set up viewings of the once-yearly coral spawning events on panoramic screens in a community building, and that over the years; the viewing has been attended by increasingly more people. It is made to be entertaining as well as educational, with community members able to witness the amazing simultaneous release of hundreds of thousands of eggs from their own surrounding reefs, and better understand the precise conditions needed to achieve coral larvae settlement and growth. New growth is just as important as established growth on the reef. It is cause for concern, Dr. Richmond said, if he dives a beautiful reef yet only observes old corals. New coral growth must be present to encourage the reefs continuance, otherwise he says, the reef is unknowingly and slowly perishing.

In closing, Dr. Richmond pointed out that while individuals cannot manage corals themselves, they can indeed manage their own impact on coral reefs. Those present at the lecture took a moment to collectively recognize that there is much to be concerned about in the oceans, but that a common and consistent enthusiasm is needed to make a change. Dr. Richmond offered a positive, promising and inspirational voice for the future health of coral reefs.

Visit Dr. Richmond's Laboratory Website
Learn More about Dr. Richmond's Pew Marine Fellowship Project

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