Islands as microcosms…
Sunday | August 21, 2005
Yesterday, with 3 out of 5 of our survey islands almost complete, and evidence of fishing and global warming impacts at all three sites, Enric asked the question - "is Palmyra condemned to a succession of failed coral recolonisation attempts between warm El Niño years?" … This is the question that interests me as a scientist and world citizen, and brought me to explore these remote islands in the Pacific.
My home is East Africa, where the Indian Ocean suffered worst amongst all the planet's coral reef regions during the El Niño of 1997-98. Until 1998 we thought that fishing was the worst threat to our reefs … now we have seen that it is little compared to global warming. And now each year we wait with bated breath to hear if this one will be another El Niño, and if it will be worse than 1998? If it is, how much more of our coral reefs will we lose? And as a result, how much will the already stressed fish populations be further impacted, causing more hardship to tens of thousands of poor fishers and their families? How much will our valuable beaches and reefs, that attract millions of tourists each year, be eroded? Already on December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami showed how vulnerable coastal populations are to the sea - in the Seychelles reefs degraded by global warming in 1998 suffered the most destruction from the tsunami, as did the shorelines they used to protect. One problem multiplies all the others.
In 2000 I made my first exploration into the Central Pacific, where the most pristine reefs I had ever seen showed me just how degraded the reefs I had built my career on are. The Phoenix Islands - on the equator and almost 180 degrees east and west - are so remote from populated islands and continents that they had never had permanent human populations, had not been fished, had not suffered from global warming - and featured in the National Geographic magazine of February 2004. But then a shark-finning boat single-handedly removed half the shark populations on the islands in only 6 months. Following that an El Niño caused widespread coral bleaching and death of half the islands' coral reefs - though this occurred in 2002 the islands are so remote no one even knew until a sailboat passed through the islands in late 2004.
On this trip I am seeing that even these remote islands in the Line Island Archipelago are all touched in one way or another by Man - from small fishing canoes on Kiritimati and Tabuaeran where a fisherman is trying to feed his family, to commercial shark-finning boats supplying distant export markets, to global warming. Here, as in the Phoenix Islands and East Africa, the message is the same … Man's footprint can be felt even in the most remote part of the globe. And as scientists we must answer the questions - "What does this mean for coral reefs? Can they adapt and survive? Can they bounce back?" The answers are not clear, but what is clear is that all attempts to reverse the catastrophic impacts of our society are urgently needed.
Coral reefs are the canary in the coal mine for our planet. This trip is showing, along with the work of our colleagues worldwide, that the planet is suffering from Man's thirst for more and more wealth, products and energy. While we can try and manage each reef or protected area, threats such as the global demand for fish and global consumption of energy in vehicles, homes and factories must be brought under control. As an ecologist I know that all our interactions must be managed within limits - in this case the limitations of the planet. Otherwise, what we have seen on the coral reefs of Kiritimati, Tabuearan and Palmyra, these islands 1,000 miles from the nearest people, are looking-glass reflections of what is happening in San Diego, Nairobi or Tibet.
We are looking forward to seeing the last two islands on our trip - Teraina and Kingman - both small, one inhabited, the other not. I fear that the message will be the same. I only hope that by showing what is happening to the world's coral reefs we add weight to increasing calls for action on consumption and global warming in order to protect coral reefs. But the message is wider than coral reefs. Other vulnerable ecosystems also need to be protected, as well as the agricultural ecosystems on which we all depend. Just as importantly, poor countries whose people are vulnerable to environmental degradation and climate change will also need help to adapt, as will cities and wealthy countries, who in the end will suffer just as much.
There are no islands anymore - we are all in the same boat. This year, or the next, might be another strong El Niño year, and once again it is not only the corals on Palmyra that will suffer.
—By David Obura