Travel to Exotic Foreign Lands! See Beautiful Coral Reefs! And Kill Them!

Something is killing the coral reefs?and if the present rate of extinction continues, 70 percent of all corals will be dead in 20 to 40 years. An ecological whodunit.

My route to the front lines of the campaign to save coral reefs in the Caribbean takes me over the concrete, steel, and glass landscape of South Florida. Fifty years ago, heat, bugs, disease, snakes, hurricanes, and all manner of natural uncertainty swatted cities and settlements away like pests. Then air conditioning, interstate highways, and DDT hastened our rush to live in comfort and profit from the tropical extremes of this tender peninsula. We thought of the coastal morass as a wasteland, a problem to be solved, rather than as a natural means for filtering and easing our impact on the land and sea around us. By now we’ve traded most of that great swamp, its upstream watersheds, and its coastline for a place where millions of people live, grow sugarcane, launch rockets, drive to work, go to football games, and take the kids to Disney World—all the while, in the surrounding waters of the Keys and Caribbean, coral reefs are dead or dying.

Corals are history’s survivors, coming back from the Permian extinction, most likely caused by an atmospheric event 225 million years ago, and living through the Cretaceous extinction, which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago after an asteroid crashed into the earth. Some 30 million years ago, these tiny survivors began to build their reef structures and perform their essential chores of filtration, nourishment, and mineral processing. Today there has been no such noticeable catastrophe, yet the coral reefs and their industrious builders are dying at an alarming rate.

Fifteen minutes after takeoff from Miami, an island slides under the wing and the rum drinks make their way down the aisles of the 767 carrying 300 of us to Jamaica. The huge, scarred brown kidney that is Cuba is surrounded by shades of blue, deepening from the shore to the dark necklaces of the reefs. As we level off six miles above Cuba’s south coast, I can still see the arcs, spurs, and grooves of the reefs nuzzling the shoreline like filings drawn to a great magnet, nearly lifeless remnants of what were once symphonies of color and diversity. From an orbiting spacecraft, big reefs, such as Australia’s Great Barrier, are the only visible evidence of earth’s living creatures other than human cities and structures.

Altogether, the world’s coral reefs cover only about 368,000 square miles—an area roughly the size of Texas and New Mexico combined. For the most part, they live in the midlatitudes, the narrow band circling the globe between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, occupying less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the ocean floor. But because the business of life is the business of light, the shallow near-shore zones they occupy support a quarter of all marine plants and animals. Close to 1 million species of fish, crabs, eels, mollusks, sponges, worms, grasses, algae, and other marine animals call coral reefs home or use them as nurseries. The comparisons we make between corals and cities beneath the sea are anthropocentric understatements once you get a whiff of the real complexities and rhythms of a reef and its inhabitants. Human cities are assertions of commerce, culture, and productivity, with neighborhoods that can be built and rebuilt. A much more apt analogy for a coral reef is the human body, with its intricate web of hundreds of different kinds of cells, organs, and systems that are utterly dependent upon one another. Kill one neighborhood and the whole body dies.

Of the 300 or so people with me aboard the plane on the way to Jamaica’s Montego Bay, maybe 30 of them, at the outside, know that corals are living animals. “Once I got fishermen to understand that the rocks are alive,” one Jamaican coral reef campaigner would later tell me, “they could begin to understand that they could die.” Corals are a type of animal called a polyp, the simplest of predators that eat meat in the form of drifting zooplankton. Arguably the world’s greatest builders, they also process calcium and other minerals from seawater and organize themselves into enormous colonies that can live and grow for thousands of years. Some reefs are hundreds of miles long and thousands of feet thick. Millions and millions of individual corals form each reef in nature’s grandest colonial variation; so when you talk about a reef dying, you’re really talking about the death of a stupendous number of individual animals. Curiously, corals are really something more than themselves. All corals have boarders, zillions of microscopic, one-celled plants called zooxanthellae that live inside the polyps and transform sunlight into oxygen, keeping the corals alive. Corals’ symbiotic relationship with this algae, though, can turn into a deadly propensity for attracting too many houseguests.

“You see,” Peter Bell, a wry Australian environmental engineer, tells me, “there is good algae and bad algae.” All corals depend for their existence on the presence of a certain amount of algae, but if algae are overfed, they bloom, and if they grow too much or too fast, they become harmful to the coral. This process is called eutrophication, which means, simply, overnourishment. Corals thrive in the relatively nutrient-poor water of the tropical and subtropical ocean, dependent upon zooxanthellae. Water around a reef becomes eutrophic when “nutrients” (usually in the form of nitrogen, phosphorus, and the other chemicals found in raw sewage, agricultural pesticides, and fertilizer runoff) overwhelm the near-shore ecosystem—the result of building a Miami or Montego Bay, a resort hotel or sugar plantation. The algae then grow and flower, eventually choking the corals to death.

“All over the world, reefs are in the midst of what you can best think of as a phase shift from high-diversity, coral-dominant to low-diversity, algae-dominant,” explains Michael Haley, head of the University of the West Indies marine lab at Discovery Bay on Jamaica’s north shore. Haley’s field is animal behavior, but coral reefs are everywhere in his work. “A reef can cope with two or three kinds of stress, but not more,” he tells me, as we stand overlooking a bay full of dark, dead coral. “Most people understand that if they’re building something near the sea, pollution is going to be a hot potato. On a limestone island like Jamaica, or anyplace else with lots of drainage from uplands, you can be miles from the sea and be killing corals with fertilizer or other pollution.” Indeed, corals in the plumes of great rivers such as the Mississippi, Amazon, and Orinoco have died because of the flushing of contaminated soil and other pollutants from thousands of miles away. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, is getting four to five times more nitrogen and phosphorus per year than it received 100 years ago.

Coral reefs also face destruction from a suite of other abuses. They are hammered by anchors, divers, miners, and collectors chipping off corals for sale, as well as by the natural pounding of storms. Overfishing and injurious fishing practices like the use of cyanide or dynamite (for blast fishing) destroy thousands of acres of coral reefs every year. Corals also die from “bleaching,” a malady triggered by a warming in the temperature of the water, which makes the corals expel their colored zooxanthellae, exposing the corals’ skeletal secretions of white limestone. At some depths and conditions, bleaching can occur when the water temperature rises just a single degree, linking reef degradation to another man-made source of pollution: fossil fuel emissions, which contribute to global warming. The warmer water temperatures associated with El Niño this year—up to 10 degrees warmer in some locations—have also taken their toll on corals, which are experiencing bleaching worldwide. And finally, corals face death from at least six varieties of disease (black-band, yellow-band, aspergillus, white-band, white-pox, and white-plague). Between 1996 and 1997, the incidence of coral disease in the Florida Keys increased by 292 percent. This dramatic leap, some researchers believe, is due to the corals’ immunological collapse because of eutrophication. Corals, after all, are animals, and they get sick under pressure, just as humans do.

Most scientists who study the corals’ plight avoid the issue of eutrophication and its politically volatile implications for water-quality management, focusing instead on corals’ physiology, the pathology of the diseases that kill them, and other narrower bands of research, according to Brian Lapointe, a marine scientist in the Florida Keys. His definitive paper on eutrophication off Jamaica’s and Florida’s coasts is almost undecipherable—25 pages of numbers, formulas, tables, and citations on the effects of nutrients on macroalgae and corals. His conclusions, though, are in a language as direct as a left cross to the jaw of establishment marine science: Water quality is the god-factor in the rehabilitation of coral reefs, a point of view that demands sweeping ecosystem analysis of coastal development, upland drainage, resorts, global warming, and all the other downstream effects of human habitation. “The reality of large-scale coastal eutrophication needs to be rigorously confronted,” Lapointe writes.

Bell agrees. He developed research models to establish the relationship between nutrient quantities and the rate of algae growth. He tells me that earlier estimates of the amounts of phosphates and nitrogen required to overnourish coastal zones were wildly off because they were based on water-quality standards in nontropical regions. “We treated reefs like they were in a vast, cleansing ocean, while we should think of them more as part of a fragile alpine stream or pond,” he says. “Once you see it, everything is totally clear…. It really is an awakening, like becoming a Christian or something.”

The mass extinction of corals seems to have begun just two or three decades ago—a heartbeat on the evolutionary timescale. Already about 10 percent of the reefs off of more than 93 countries, including Australia, China, Indonesia, India, and the Philippines, have died. In some places, such as the waters off Florida, Cuba, and Jamaica, more than 90 percent of the reefs are dead or dying. Only reefs in such remote locales as the Oceania islands in the Pacific are generally healthy. More startling, if the present rate of extinction continues, some estimate that 70 percent of all corals will be dead in 20 to 40 years. The direct consequences of this catastrophe are as dire for the human population as a global crop failure would be. Coral reefs are nothing less than a life-support system, particularly in cash-poor regions where people depend on the local fish catch for their food. Reefs generate cash, too. Tourists pay handsomely for their visits to the coral reefs and pristine beaches of such vacation destinations as Jamaica. Unfortunately, the presence of resorts, airports, golf courses, and tourists themselves is helping to wipe out coral reefs. The irony is that barely two decades into Jamaica’s boom time, the country’s reliance on tourism can be compared to a smallpox blanket: It’ll keep you warm for a couple of nights but kill you in the long run.

The physical guardians of the coast, coral reefs also serve swamps, marshes, and beaches as defenders against the steady surge of the sea and the periodic devastation of storms. Most frightening, though, as we contemplate the extinction of coral reefs, is what it may do to humans. All of us depend on the sea, whether living in Nebraska, Key West, or Manitoba. The penalties for killing off the reefs are endless: a sick ocean that surrenders less seafood, smaller crops in farm zones inundated by saltwater, fewer raw chemical materials essential to medical research, and less of whatever unforeseen genetic information might be eventually precious to humans. NASA could not have invented a better ocean monitoring technology than a network of minute animals that die if the ocean isn’t healthy, giving us an early warning of what may befall us.

Michael Haley has a phenomenological take on the current extinction of corals. In Jamaica, a combination of forces reduced corals to less than 2 percent of their former mass in the early ’90s. He acknowledges that “we will probably never get them back to pre-Columbian condition, but if we do the right things now, we can bring some back.” The “right things” are obvious: stop physical destruction (anchoring, mining, dynamiting), cyanide fishing, and other clear abuses, of course. Places like Jamaica, he says, need to overhaul their sewage systems in order to prevent them from feeding the algae. Since most coral reefs lie in waters off poor nations, the money to fix creaky infrastructure like sewage systems is scarce. Some money, primarily from the United States, Europe, and Japan, is flowing to these countries to help heal the reefs, but the politics of pollution are burdened by special interests and general inefficiency. Even where laws are in place to control pollution, abuse of fisheries, and other coral-killing activities, enforcement is either impractical or nonexistent.

While governments may eventually prohibit dynamiting, poisoning, and anchoring on the reefs, Lapointe tells me, none seems willing to confront the problem of nutrient runoff from inhabited coasts, whether point-specific or general sewage that leaches through watersheds. Easing the blow delivered by eutrophication is a challenge requiring heroics in government and business that might not be possible. As Bell says, “When was the last time you heard a national politician say anything about sewage?”

Adds Haley: “Jamaica is not single-minded enough about reef preservation…. There is increasing acknowledgment that there is a problem, but not everybody agrees on what to do and the power of nonmarine industries is enormous.” The only areas with substantive human populations where reefs are healthy are places like the Cayman Islands and Bonaire, because pristine reefs are at the center of their commerce, and they don’t have conflicts of interest with sugar producers or other polluters as do many coastal regions. Such commercial conflicts and even competition among environmental organizations for funding are also barriers to reviving the reefs. “You really have to get more people in the water figuring out what’s really happening down there instead of going to meetings,” Haley says.

South Florida and Montego Bay may be the smoking guns of the who’s-killing- the-corals mystery, but this is no longer a detective story. We know why the reefs are dying: They are allergic to us.

When I finally reach the trenches of the battle to save Jamaica’s coral reefs, I find those determined people who spend a lot of time in the water. I had survived my arrival in Montego Bay after encountering the Jamaican version of industrial tourism. You step off the plane, one of dozens that nose up to the low concrete airport daily, and encounter greeters, reps from the resorts, customs agents, and policemen in red berets. There’s even a small choir in bright shirts and sarongs singing, “We welcome you to Jamaica, we hope you have a good time,” while you walk to the terminal.

The big money here is in sugarcane, bauxite mines, and the so-called all-inclusive resorts—hotels with golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools, and hundreds of rooms, where all you can eat and drink is included in the stiff price. I pass an endless chain of these places, with names like Sandals, Hedonism II, and Swept Away, most of which have figured out that if you’re selling reefs and beaches to tourists, you’d better give lip service to the environmental bandwagon and get visibly green. The Jamaican coast is a microcosm of South Florida and other coral-killing regions that not only flush harmful nutrients into the ocean but destroy mangrove swamps and other natural filters through their aggressive development along the shoreline.

The headquarters of the Negril Coral Reef Preservation Society is a salvaged shipping van painted pink and set up on a high-water concrete foundation on the beach. There I meet the executive director, Katy Thacker, who came to Jamaica on vacation 17 years ago and never left.

Thacker is busy preparing for a day of diving with Peter Bell and Brian Lapointe, who are setting up a system for monitoring the water quality on the reefs and upland watersheds around Negril. With them is another coral crusader, Craig Quirolo, a former dive charter skipper visiting from Key West. In 1986, he and his wife, DeeVon, started Reef Relief there after realizing that anchors on dive boats like theirs were killing the beautiful reefs that were the main attraction for their business. Reef Relief put itself on the map of enviroactivism by installing mooring buoys around the reefs to reduce damage from anchoring. It also runs large-scale awareness campaigns and publishes hundreds of thousands of brochures every year to alert divers and other tourists to the crisis on the reefs. Quirolo won one of George Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light” awards in 1991, but sadly, seven years later, no amount of public education, applause, and mooring buoys has turned the tide for Florida’s corals. Quirolo now spends most of his time photographing the reefs to identify and document the condition of the corals.

In Jamaica, Quirolo is on the beach in front of the Negril Society’s office with Thacker and Lapointe, checking over his dive gear, talking corals with a group of Jamaicans known as the Reef Rangers. The Rangers patrol the area (a proposed marine park) and have the authority to ticket reef abusers. Bell and Lapointe’s water-quality survey will help gauge the effects of a new sewer that’s going in on the beach and will provide hard evidence of the impact on the watersheds of runoff from cane farms and other development. Such data will pave the road for instituting remedies to eutrophication: clean, sophisticated sewage filtering systems, programs to encourage the return of fish and other algae-balancing tenants of the reefs, and prevention of further physical damage to the reefs.

Later, I am on a dive boat over the tattered, miserable reef in Montego Bay with a half-dozen other people, including a woman from Texas who is having a terrific time. She enjoys watching the fish on the reef. They have survived only because the crews of the dive and glass-bottom boats feed them 10 times a day. Underwater, I watch schools of wrasses, parrot fish, and needlefish rush toward the sound of every approaching boat. The corals themselves, though, are uniformly brown, except for a few purple sea fans; the branching corals appear pathetically truncated, and the brain corals blotched from stress. In a 30-minute dive, I count only a half-dozen urchins, which help keep algae in check. Afterwards, I am talking with another fellow on the boat about the dying coral, when the woman says, “You mean this reef is dead? I didn’t even know it was alive except for plants.” So I explain that corals are animals, but the reefs around Jamaica are essentially corpses and limestone. “Well, this’ll have to do, I guess,” she says. “It’s the only one I’ve ever seen.”

Despite all the grassroots work, the eutrophication trend is not reversing, except in a few isolated, very controlled locations. For example, an algae-dominated reef in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, was revived when the sewage was diverted, but is now threatened from the general runoff of the area’s booming human population. In Jamaica, too, one reef at the Dragon Bay resort has come back to life—hotel owners realized the reef was dying and figured out a way to recycle their sewage to fertilize their grounds and plants—but for the most part, the reefs there are not getting better.

“It all gives us the feeling that we’ve really blown it,” Quirolo says, shaking his head. “We started out thinking that putting in a few buoys would save the reefs and that’s really a joke now. It’s just really hard to get people to pay attention to corals.”

As grim as the coral reef story is, the corals seem to be presenting us with a teachable moment in our evolution. The concept of “environmentalism” struck our industrial culture like a flaming meteor when Apollo astronauts turned their cameras homeward. That view of the whole, blue earth forever destroyed the notion of infinite terrestrial frontiers. Since then, we’ve turned a considerable amount of energy and engineering horsepower to refining the ways in which we consume resources.

A second great message in the environmental revolution is being delivered not by space voyagers, monumental engineering projects, and public relations campaigns for recycling, but by corals. Acknowledging that eutrophication is the primary killer of coral reefs sets up a trail of incrimination leading directly to human activity. Good intentions and the notion of responsible dominion aren’t restoring the ecological balance. “The ocean must be viewed in a broader context of the changes that are happening in the world at large,” says Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist and ecologist at Oregon State University. Humans, she says, cannot just view the ocean simply as a source of goods—fish, crab, minerals, and so on—to which they attach financial worth. The ocean and other natural systems also provide services that have value to humans and all other life. “We have to change the way we account for consumption of natural resources so we place a much higher premium not just on the market value of a particular fish or plot of land but on the full range of goods and services,” Lubchenco says. “The key to the future really is taking the long-term perspective, instead of the short-term, when it comes to natural systems.”

If you live on the coast, would you give up your condo and your cabin cruiser, and move a few miles inland in order to rejuvenate the mangroves? If you live in Cleveland, would you stop using cane sugar in your coffee or be ready to pay triple the price for sugar to reduce the number of plantations and improve their control of wastewater? Would you pay the real cost of that Jamaica vacation if it included a coral reef surcharge of, say, 50 percent to pay for top-of-the-line sewage treatment? Probably not.

But coral reefs are powerfully diverse and biologically energetic, and they recover quickly. If we let up on them even a little bit, there is hope. “I’ll tell you,” DeeVon Quirolo says, “if we cleaned up the reefs around the Keys and in the Caribbean, the technologies and methods we could strut would impress the whole world.”

Bradford Matsen is the author of several books on the ocean, most recently Fishing Up North. His last feature for Mother Jones appeared in the November/December 1994 issue and documented the state of the fishing industry.


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