Hurray! The U.S. federal government can actually get something done, and yesterday it announced the largest single event in the history of the U.S. Endangered Species Act: 20 new coral species listed as “threatened.”

Before and after photos of same reef in the Florida Keys (Phillip Dustan).

Before and after photos of same reef in the Florida Keys (Phillip Dustan).

Perhaps now I will get some attention for my business plan for Caribbean Reef SOS, a new nonprofit to save the reefs (see

With a total of 22 coral species now listed, this group is bigger than all combined marine extinctions in the historical record. That’s right–only 19 species in the ocean have been confirmed extinct in human history, and that includes all mammals, fish, invertebrates and plants. Within the coral family alone, it is poised to double.

The really sad news is that this listing, while hopeful, is actually much worse than it sounds. The original petition from the Center for Biological Diversity asked for more than 80 listings, and the listing agency was considering more than 60 of them. The number 80 represents nearly 10% of all known reef-building corals.

Get details of the review process here.

Slide1President Bush once said, as a candidate in 2000, “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.” At least he got the grammar right.

This week, we have been examining the recent history of Caribbean reefs and their emerging fate. While the situation looks dire, the problems facing reefs suggest solutions.

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

Five problems account for most of the destruction, according to the report Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, in this order:

1. Too Many People

2. Overfishing

3. Coastal Pollution

4. Ocean Warming

5. Invasive Species

The first problem is not just overpopulation; it is also over-popularity among tourists. Both issues contribute to overfishing and coastal pollution. One feasible solution to such people pressures is to create strict (no access) and larger Marine Protected Areas. These have worked, and more of them could build up the region’s immune system.

As for ocean warming, this problem is beyond local control. This effect and other issues related to climate change require social revolutions at the grandest of scales. Caribbean nations can certainly make noise and wave the flag.

Invasive species are lesser concerns except for the Pacific lionfish, which people should hunt relentlessly. The root of the invasion problem, however, based in international trade, seems intractable.

Cancun, Mexico, where the reefs are not far from shore.

Cancun, Mexico, where the reefs are not far from shore.

A weak system will succumb to disease, whereas a strong system can withstand multiple threats. The diagnosis for Caribbean reefs is clear and disturbing: this region is weak and susceptible to collapse. Collapse means death.

The region itself can do some things to build its resistance, but do not expect it to shut down tourism and fishing altogether. A major shift in today’s global society could buy time, but do not expect rich nations to sacrifice their privileges.

Headlines about the report have emphasized that Caribbean reefs have about 20 years left to survive. If true, their collective heartbeats would cease in the year 2034.

As a synopsis, here are a few highlights from the report:

  • Caribbean reef decline has a long history that parallels human population growth and use.
  • The reefs have lost the majority of their living coral within the past 40 years.
  • Large animals are missing in action, namely sharks, other large fishes, and turtles.
  • A few protected and isolated reefs are healthy, showing that good management can work.
  • Disease, mass tourism, and overfishing are the clearest culprits in reef decline.

Read the report’s Executive Summary to learn more about the state of Caribbean coral reefs.



The confusion whirlpooled as soon as headlines started to spin a 300-page report into one-liners.

  •  “Climate Change Isn’t Main Culprit in Decline of Coral Reefs” wrote the Caribbean Journal.
  •  “Climate change ‘not wholly to blame’ for reef death in the Caribbean” opined The Times of London.
  • “Climate change wrongly blamed as lead cause of loss of Caribbean coral reefs, scientist says,” was the headline in The Australian.

After the release in early July of the most comprehensive report of its kind, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, reporters tried to make it digestible for their readers. Editors also choose which parts to emphasize in their headlines.

Dead Caribbean reefs are no fun. Bonaire, 2013 (c) Catlin Seaview Survey.

Dead Caribbean reefs are no fun. Bonaire, 2013 (c) Catlin Seaview Survey.

The headlines are technically accurate, because the report does state that climate change appears less statistically important than other factors in the decline of Caribbean reefs. The problem is that many readers do not get past the headline, and they may jump to the conclusion that climate change is not relevant.

The better headlines, in my opinion as a journalist and a reader, are those that emphasize the countdown of “20 years” to annihilation.

Caribbean coral reefs ‘will be lost within 20 years’ without protection” wrote The Guardian. Its subtitle was also effective: “Major report warns that loss of grazing fish due to pollution and overfishing is a key driver of region’s coral decline.” This article is the one to read, and it reinforces my view of this newspaper’s environmental coverage as far superior to the New York Times or any other U.S.-based news agency.

In fact, the New York Times did not even cover the seminal report. In 2013, this so-called newspaper of record closed its environmental desk.

My award for the worst headline goes to Time magazine: “Report Sees a Glimmer of Hope for Coral Reefs.”

The worst soundbites and headlines were fostered by the report’s own public relation’s campaign to brand it as “From despair to repair.” It rhymes, but it has little reason. The report’s publisher, the IUCN, also released a cute video of the lead author discussing romance. What?

I understand the drive to put a smiley face on everything. Cute things make people smile.


Breast cancer advocates were smart to brand this scourge with the color pink. Nobody wants to wear a t-shirt that shows accurate depictions of cancer cells. But people must understand the deadly reality behind the prettiness in pink.

The public does not yet comprehend the seriousness of coral reef decline or even general environmental decline, as evidenced by the lack of public engagement. For example, in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the issue of climate change was not raised in any official debate.

People demonstrate great concern for cancer because they see it, and they get it. Until people see and get the collapse of the ocean environment, editors and reporters need to portray it in very raw and ugly terms.

As for the report’s perspective on climate change, the article in The Guardian summarizes it well: “While climate change and the resulting ocean acidification and coral bleaching does pose a major threat to the region, the report – Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012 – found that local pressures such as tourism, overfishing and pollution posed the biggest problems.”

It’s the people, stupid.



Jeremy Jackson could be called the “Michael Jackson” of ocean science. He has been called a rock star by other scientists, and his face appears as one of the new Jackson Five in a parody of Mount Rushmore.

Jesse, Michael, Jeremy, Andrew and Shoeless Joe (from

Jesse, Michael, Jeremy, Andrew and Shoeless Joe (from

At age 71, he is the lead author of the new report, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012. You can see him chatting about his Caribbean memories with his co-star (wife) Dr. Nancy Knowlton in the video “From despair to repair.”

Funny, this video uses their romance to infuse hope into a hopeless situation.

Some scientists have critized Jackson for being too public, too brash, and too invested in his demands for action. He is not content to be the cool-headed, detached scientist. He has seen the problem in the ocean, and the problem is us.

“It’s not about the fish; it’s not about the pollution; it’s not about the climate change. It’s about us and our greed and our need for growth and our inability to imagine a world that is different from the selfish world we live in today.” (Ted talk)

One theory he has promoted widely (and humorously) is called Shifting Baselines. It happens when new generations see the ocean today as “normal,” and they fail to recognize how clean and abundant it used to be. He has witnessed it firsthand on Caribbean reefs:

“Every ecosystem I studied is unrecognizably different from when I started. I have a son who is 30, and I used to take him snorkeling on the reefs in Jamaica to show him all the beautiful corals there. I have a daughter who is 17 — I can’t show her anything but heaps of seaweed.” (from

In just a few years, Jamaican reefs became unrecognizable. Jackson says in the report that all Caribbean reefs have about 20 years left before than all become wastelands. He is not an alarmist. He is a respected scientist and a witness to natural history.

The Sunshine State’s many exceptional natural features have made it a tourism mecca and standout in the oeuvre of postcards, but promoters may want to bury the latest description of its coral reefs. The most comprehensive report on the state of Caribbean coral reefs calls Florida’s reefs “a special case”– and not in the good way.

A promotional cartoon paints a rosy image of the world's first underwater park.

A promotional cartoon paints a rosy image of the world’s first underwater park. (

“Florida has seen a sharp decline in its coral reef in the past 40 years,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of Global Marine and Polar Programme at the IUCN, the world’s authority on extinction and publisher of the report on Caribbean reefs. “Improved management, particularly of reef fish and regulation of coastal use can help reverse this trend,” he says.

Decadal decline applies to most Caribbean reefs, but the report singles out the Florida Reef for its harshest assessment.

Florida represents the “worst-case scenario” where “intensity of human use and environmental impacts greatly exceeds that of any other region in the wider Caribbean, if not the world,” states the IUCN report, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012. The report analyzed 35,000 reef surveys to detect patterns across the region. The report names Jamaica and the U.S. Virgin Islands, in addition to Florida, as places lacking healthy corals.

Six million people are sandwiched in between the Everglades and the Florida Reef (Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

In southern Florida, six million people are sandwiched in between the Everglades and the Florida Reef, in red. (Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

One trend emphasized in the report is that positive human intervention can control negative impacts. “The Gulf of Mexico has some of the worst and some of the best reefs in the Caribbean. The key determining factor for this is the way the reefs have been managed,” says Lundin.

Florida’s reefs have been managed very poorly, the report contends, and “inadequate governance and regulations have resulted in the critical endangerment of an entire coral reef ecosystem.”

Endangered Reefs, Made of Coral

Only in recent years have entire ecosystems been considered candidates for mass extinction. According to the IUCN, the wider Caribbean region of reefs qualifies as “endangered” under its new criteria for ecosystems.

In 2006, two major Caribbean corals were listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In 2009, Florida passed the Coral Reef Protection Act, and it establishes fines for boat strikes that damage coral.

The threatened staghorn and elkhorn species are stony corals that have constructed much of the Florida Reef. The theory of reef extinction being played out in Florida and elsewhere is that if reef-building corals die out, the system dies with it. Coral reef ecosystems host the greatest concentration of species in the ocean.

In a Name

The Florida Reef contains 455 square miles of reef area and stretches across the Florida Keys, Miami, and north of Palm Beach into Martin County. This northern section along the mainland lies outside the protection of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1990.

Unlike the Everglades, its sister ecosystem on land, the system of reefs that dot the southeastern Florida coastline does not have an iconic name. Scientists call it a “tract,” but I prefer to drop that ugly term and dub it the “Florida Reef.” Even better would be the term “Great Florida Reef,” but its recent history and status are anything but great.

A timeline for the Florida Reef within the IUCN report demonstrates that the number of new protective measures has waned since the end of the twentieth century. Note that a no-take area, banning all fishing and related activities, first appeared in 2001. These no-take areas comprise six percent of the reef area in the Florida Keys.

The list below revises the report’s original timeline by removing natural disasters and including only protective measures.

Timeline of Protective Measures for the Florida Reef

(adapted from Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs)


1935: Dry Tortugas National Monument established by President Roosevelt


Read More

The Taino are an extinct people from the Caribbean, represented by this statue in Puerto Rico (Wikipedia).

The Taino are an extinct people from the Caribbean, represented by this statue in Puerto Rico (Wikipedia).

Before and after photos of same reef in the Florida Keys (Phillip Dustan).

Before (1975) and after (2004) photos of same reef in the Florida Keys (Phillip Dustan).

Anarchists and cultural purists have a saying: “Assimilation is Death.” They contend that when one group submits and conforms to the demands of a dominant culture, the submissive culture dies. And they have a point, because many languages and cultures have disappeared at the hands of colonization.

Biology and ecology are teaching us that this trend extends to nature. For ecosystems, the saying modifies into something like “Overpopulation is Death.” Think about it: the world’s most populated areas lack natural abundance, and the least populated areas are havens for the diversity of species and their proliferation. This force extends into places where people do not live directly but have quick access: the coastal ocean.

Death of the ocean is a difficult concept to grasp, but it is becoming a constant prediction in science. Dead zones around river deltas are well documented, but new targets include even larger areas and entire ecosystems.

In a strange twist for biologists, a new major report on Caribbean coral reefs makes an explicit connection between the fate of nature and the history of colonization:

“Because of their isolation for millions of years, and by analogy to the fates of Native Americans after their first contact with Europeans, Caribbean species should be exceptionally prone to the impact of introduced diseases. And this appears to be the case.”

In other words, the expansion of humans across the Caribbean brings disease and death to the sea. This assertion comes from the report Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, the most comprehensive review of its kind. It puts overpopulation at the top of its list of main threats.

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

What were the fates of Native Americans after Christopher Columbus? The very name “Caribbean” refers to the Carib people, and they were connected to the Taino people. Ever heard of them? Their languages are gone, and the Taino were assimilated and/or disappeared. Extinct. Dead.

What is the destiny of Caribbean coral reefs? Here is the report’s summary of its recommendations:

“Caribbean coral reefs and their associated resources will virtually disappear within just a few decades unless all of these measures are promptly adopted and enforced.”

Did you get it? By 2044 (three decades from now), reefs will have disappeared. Extinct. Dead.

The good news for reefs, as opposed to indigenous Tainos, is that they are not extinct yet. But is their death preventable, or inevitable?

The status quo of increasing populations and increasing threats makes the death of all reefs inevitable, and only massive change can stop it, the report concludes. It also notes that many devoted people have abandoned hope:

“Concerns have mounted to the point that many NGOs [non-governmental organizations] have given up on Caribbean reefs and moved their attentions elsewhere.”

Why would you give up, submit, and succumb to domination? History has taught us to act otherwise.

Giving up is death.



This week, readers of this blog will be treated to an in-depth exploration of Caribbean reefs. Now you don’t have to take a vacation or wait for the Discovery Channel to deliver your ocean fix, courtesy of Shark Week (starting August 10).

Each day a new blog post will review an issue raised in an important new report: Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012. For homework, you can read the report’s executive summary.

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

One of the report’s major findings is called a “phase shift,” and it happens when a formerly healthy coral reef becomes smothered by algae. This unfortunate trend has been going on for decades across many Caribbean reefs.

Why do these reefs deserve attention now? In essence, they represent the most vulnerable large ecosystem in the world. These underwater “rainforests” are faring worse than rainforests on land. The report gives these reefs a death sentence in about 20 years.

Pacific reefs are in somewhat better shape (but not great either). The Caribbean is a smaller region, with fewer species than in the Pacific, and the explosion of populations and of tourism across the region has created a perfect storm of reef destruction.

The gloom and doom is a necessary wake-up call for a region with meager resources to deal with an immense problem. The report tries to paint a pretty picture of changing from “despair to repair,” and this perspective gives some hope. False hope? You decide.



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