- Issue: Summer 2018
- Author: Dr. Gabby Ahmadia
The seagrass meadow below me thins out, giving way to scattered bommies—rounded, free-standing mini coral ecosystems. I swim past two ghost pipe fish that resemble blades of seagrass drifting in the water, their almost imperceptible mouths open to suck in minuscule crustaceans. A blue-ringed octopus peeks out from the rubble. Docile by nature and only the size of a golf ball, its bite would nevertheless kill me within minutes.
I reach the crest of the reef, festooned with corals, fish, and other critters of every size and shape. Beyond it, a steep drop-off affords me a view of the deep blue sea.
I’ve spent so much time in coral reefs that they feel like a second home. I have worked for more than a decade within the Coral Triangle, a 2.2 million square-mile marine area that contains more than 75% of the world’s coral species and more than 2,000 species of fish. In that time, I have designed and implemented programs to monitor the social and ecological impacts of marine protected areas across Indonesia. I have helped governments and others integrate fisheries and climate change into their decisions about how to use marine resources. And—perhaps my favorite—I train, and learn from, the local scientists who know the reef best. Most recently, as part of a small team at WWF, I have been working with the Wildlife Conservation Society to launch Mermaid, an online global coral reef monitoring database.
My professional interest in coral reefs and climate change dates to 2003, when I was an exchange student in Townsville, Australia. If you’re going to travel to discover your true calling, you could do worse than the Great Barrier Reef. But the reef is in serious trouble. Last year, more than 90% of the Northern Great Barrier Reef experienced coral bleaching, and more than 20% of the coral died as a result.
Bleaching occurs when rising ocean temperatures cause coral to expel algae that reside within their tissue. Without the photosynthetic algae, corals turn white and begin to starve.
In 2017, sections of the Great Barrier Reef experienced bleaching for the second year in a row, and as climate change accelerates, the global trend lines look grim. Recently, I was part of a study that projects most coral reefs will experience annual bleaching by 2050.
Growing up in Hawaii, I recall fourth-grade field trips to the local tidal pools, where we clambered over rocks to identify fish like Moorish idols and blue tangs. I was hooked.
Now time is running out for my childhood playground. Recently half of Hawaii’s coral reefs experienced bleaching in a single year.
Coral reefs cover only 1% of the ocean floor but are home to more than 25% of marine life. Half a billion people rely on coral reefs as well, for livelihoods, food, and protection from storm surges. That’s why WWF is launching a global initiative to raise awareness about the threat to coral reefs (particularly those that sustain some of the world’s most vulnerable people), and to spur action by governments, civil society, and multilateral institutions. The situation is dire, but it’s not too late for us to change course.
On my way back offshore, I spot a smattering of gobies atop a coral bommie. Less than an inch in length, these tiny fish are easy to miss, but they play a crucial role: When coral is attacked by algae (which also causes bleaching), it sends out chemical signals to the gobies, who promptly clear away the noxious growth. By working together, gobies can respond to the coral’s cry for help.
It’s time for us to do the same.