Friday | August 12, 2005
The good, the bad and the ugly
Do you remember "The good, the bad and the ugly," that classic spaghetti western with Clint Eastwood? There were three distinct and powerful characters. At the end of the movie, the bad one is killed, the ugly's life is spared but left with an uncertain future, and the good one rides away surrounded by a veil of mystery. In our first two days in Tabuaeran atoll we have also seen different characters, reefs as different and dramatic as the movie characters. What struck us the most was that these different worlds were located just a few kilometers apart.
"This is the worst reef I have seen in my life," said Nancy Knowlton after our first dive in Tabuaeran atoll, at the northern side of the entrance to the lagoon. Jim Maragos, who was here in 1972, has a clear picture in his memory of a coral reef with a great deal of three-dimensional complexity, with table corals and staghorn corals forming a living forest. This vertical structure is now gone, and dead coral plates and branches are scattered over the bottom. Everything is covered by a red algal turf. What was once a thriving coral reef has been turned into a lawn mowed by surgeonfishes.
First, fish biomass, that is, the weight of fish per acre here is greater than in any of the 25 sites we visited in Kiritimati. Kiritimati had countless fishes smaller than a dollar bill, and only a few large ones. Tabuaeran, in contrast, has less little fish; large parrotfishes, snappers, groupers, and jacks are common as well as Napoleon wrasses. Ed DeMartini, who has dived in some of the best reefs of the Pacific, said: "I have never made five dives in a row at random sites and seen Napoleon wrasse in all five dives." In addition, we saw two white tip sharks and two large green turtles in our surveys.
Second, south of the channel the corals thrive and form the type of living forests that Jim remembers so fondly. Corals are alive and cover most of the bottom. They are so dense that there is not even room for sand between them.
The bad news is that there is no such thing as a remote atoll anymore. While large fishes are doing better here because of less people fishing, corals are doing badly in some places possibly as a result of a combination of global warming and pollution from a shipwreck. The human footprint is greater than we think, and thousands of miles of sea around a coral reef does not protect it against global, invisible, yet lethal threats.