Coral Futures: Finding a Compromise

Image by Mariamichelle. Sourced via Pixabay, CC0 License.

Earlier this year, Australia Research Council’s Coral Reef Futures Symposium  (July 18-19) was a chance for coral scientists and researchers from a variety of disciplines to meet, present their current research, and discuss future avenues. There was a curious atmosphere in the darkened auditorium at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, a sense of determination diffused by tentative hope.

Over the past few years, between Adani’s Carmichael mine proposals and the 2016- 2017 Great Barrier Reef bleaching epidemic, moments of peace and optimism for coral scientists are becoming few and far between. These challenges, however, if nothing else, have taught us that we humans don’t understand this world as well as we might have thought. While this may not sound promising, it is, in fact, a momentous realisation for our species. On the one hand, yes, we finally can change the world, like our proto-agrarian ancestors would have dreamed, but ultimately this is bittersweet because, on the other hand, it is becoming more and more evident that understanding and controlling how the world changes is still something far beyond us.

Hearing the conviction in the voices of some of the best researchers in the world wasn’t quite a soothing antidote to the current climate, but rather, an inspiring wakeup call that it isn’t the world that needs to change, it is us. Not just our plastic use, not just our carbon emissions, but the way in which we think about the world. Our most fundamental tenets of social structure and economics – infinite growth, infinite wealth – all need to be reconsidered and reframed. What humanity needs, desperately, is a shift in our conception. We need to compromise on our values and update our mode of thinking.

This idea of ‘compromise’ was something of a leitmotif of the symposium, a theme that was reflected within a surprisingly vastly array of disciplines, from sociology and economics to evolutionary biology and genetics.

One of the core issues brought to light was that the segregation of local and global modes of thinking, in ecology, conservation and in politics is ultimately the source of the issues we are facing as a planet. Climate change, environmental degradation, non-compliance with zoning laws – these are all merely symptoms of an economic and social system that is no longer aligned with the reality of our planet’s population growth. When we base conservation practices within localised parameters, or we look at global trends, we do not see the reef for the coral, to paraphrase an old idiom. Like the reef itself, our world works in a series of inextricably complex and interwoven symbioses, from the macro down to the micro scale, in terms of both space as well as time. What might be a great short-term solution could lead to vastly long-term implications, such is the nature of complex network systems.

James Cook University’s Graham Cumming pointed out the need for us to start compromising. He noted that increasing a country’s GDP can mitigate local pollution, but only ever at the expense of another, less developed nation. This ‘bimodality’ of development further compounds on the fact that neither the global ecosystems nor the global economy is truly bottomless, and thus infinite growth in one direction is simply not possible, so what appears to be growth in one sector is indicative instead of an increasing disparity in wealth.

Cumming suggests that we need a new model for development to account for the fact that the earth’s resources are not infinite, and that population growth cannot only be sustained when it implies instability of the supporting ecosystem.

Evolutionary biologist David Bellwood brought up the notion of compromise as well, taking us through what he proclaimed to be the ‘most unpopular paper’ he has ever written, in which he suggested that rabbitfish, which are macroalgal herbivores endemic to the Mediterranean (where they strip natural algae cover, causing erosion to the bedrock) could help mitigate damage done by the invasive lionfish in the Caribbean (Bellwood & Goatley, 2017).

This is understandably a controversial idea, however, Bellwood suggested that the backlash was perhaps indicative of a more primal fear, the fear that we might be responsible for potential damage. Of course, this is a paradox, because the damage has been long-done. Rabbitfish, in the last decades, have in fact somehow made it across the Atlantic, after millions of years in the Mediterranean, to live in small populations along the coast of South America, Bellwood says. The ‘changes’ which we are so afraid of are already happening. They have happened, and they are irreversible. Now, the challenge will be reframing our ideal of what the future might look like because it won’t look like it was a century ago, so we need to stop using that ideal as our aim. We need to imagine a new future.

Bellwood’s other point was to remind us that while coral may be the framework for the reef, it is the fish that undertake all the maintenance. We understand the roles of species within local ecosystems, but far less research into broader functional groups (herbivores and so on) has been done, and as the composition of ecosystems change, it will be the functional groups that need to be maintained, rather than individual species – again, a restructuring of how we think about ecology. Thus, we face a conundrum; we need to change our idea of the future, we can either attempt to maintain reefs as they are, or we can compromise, and try to find novel solutions. “We understand reef systems in the old world”, says Bellwood, “but not this current world”. We cannot continue applying the same rules; we need to redefine the game.

“There has never been a greater need for coral science,” echoed David Wachenfeld, the chief scientist at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), “we need to thoroughly investigate all our options”. He emphasised the need for governments to plan, rather than react. Just prior to his talk, sociologist Katrina Brown noted that most governments fall prey to the lure of short-term maintenance, rather than engaging in long-term planning. This is a problem of management, and the increasing risks of a ‘PR nightmare’ resulting from long-term damage, as opposed to an aversion for damaging the environment itself. Maintenance is easier and less risky, from a management point of view, and according to Brown, the fact that so many NGO’s rely on the government for funding and legitimacy, means that they aren’t capable of providing the kinds of spaces needed to explore truly novel options.

Nonetheless, the biggest challenge scientists will face is mitigating expectations. Our idea of a healthy coral reef in the ‘old world’, as Bellwood put it, could be vastly different from the coral reefs of the future. Ecologist Sophie Dove, for example, presenting her research on coral mesocosms, demonstrated that in warmer, more acidic conditions, fleshier corals such as fungidae seem to be more resilient. Overall, according to her studies, the corals under stress favour adding biomass rather than expanding their surface area to cover more space. Additionally, reefs that recover from a bleaching event might not have a strong foundational scaffold, and corals might not have the thick tissues they need to be truly robust. Primary and secondary calcification might not be happening as efficiently, so even if the coral doesn’t bleach, it might have a weakened skeletal structure.

Reefs are simultaneously fragile and resilient; they are independent and infinitely symbiotic. They are a paradox, a cradle and a museum. Many coral species are millions of years old, but they might not make it into the next century, whereas younger (evolutionarily speaking), more robust corals might be better suited to surviving unpredictable climates. The biodiversity of reefs worldwide are shifting, and we need to accommodate these shifts and most importantly, manage our expectations. The dotted line of a marine park sanctuary isn’t enough to stop acidification, and if the idea of protecting ‘pristine’ nature is hindering other interventions, then we need to find flexibility within those ideals.

At the beginning of the symposium, Turrbal Elder and Songwoman Maroochy Barambah gave a beautiful Welcome to Country on behalf of the Turrbal People, the traditional owners of the Brisbane region. “As the globe turns”, she said, “we are all just learning to get along with one another, and to enjoy the little time we have on earth”. Her heartfelt words resonated deeply with many of us in the room fighting for climate and social justice. The time we have is indeed little, and precious, and perhaps by finding some humility and learning to compromise, we can walk this earth more gently.


Bellwood, D. R., & Goatley, C. H. R. (2017). Can biological invasions save Caribbean coral reefs?. Current Biology27(1), R13-R14.

Liberty Lawson is the creative director of Holographia an interdisciplinary journal which explores and celebrates the intersection of art, science and philosophy. An eternally curious writer, philosopher and scientist, she is currently completing an interdisciplinary PhD at the University of Sydney. Her work explores the ontological landscape of artificial coral reefs and other emergent hybrid ecosystems of the Anthropocene. Liberty is a passionate advocate for protecting our oceans and has worked as a marine biology and conservation throughout the Indo-Pacific and she is a Global Ambassador for the NGO Positive Change For Marine Life.

This blog post is a part of the SEI’s Student Blog Series, which features original content by Honours, Masters and PhD students at the University of Sydney who are undertaking research on environmental issues and topics. If you are a current postgraduate student at the University of Sydney who would like to participate in the series, click here for details.