MCS at the European Coral Reef Symposium - but will younger delegates have seen what I've seen? asks Dr Jean-Luc Solandt (aged 48)

Jean-Luc Solandt By: Jean-Luc Solandt
Date posted: 15 December 2017

Global climate change and increased population expansion near to coastal regions continue to damage coral reefs.

The combination of decades of increased exploitation of coral reef resources – the corals themselves as ‘concrete’ for ancient lime cement, the fish on the reefs, and the beauty of coral reefs for the tourism industry have meant we’ve our reefs ‘loved them to death’.

This crisis of use and abuse, and as ever, lack of appreciation of our incremental impact, has been supercharged by increased sea water temperatures brought on by global warming, and El Nino Southern Oscillation events. Climate change and increased acidification of the oceans is leading to the death of reefs, and slower growth when then try and recover - the increased ocean acidity makes it harder for corals to grow – they’re dissolved by the more acidic conditions.

I’ve been a coral reef ecologist all my life. Even as a child, without visiting them, I was amazed by books on these habitats, videos of Cousteau and visits to the sea. It all led me to become a marine biology undergraduate at Liverpool University, and upon graduating to travel and work for an incredible year on the Great Barrier Reef when I was 22.

I genuinely saw (near) pristine reefs – reefs with 100% coral cover, many different species, large corals (some the size of a house), and huge fish – one the size of a small car (goliath grouper), and 10 sleeping sharks on a single dive. I was amazed. And flabbergasted at the huge scale of the geographical structures that reefs build – structures seen from space. Millions of years old, and all alive, and constantly growing out against the ferocious waves – like a rainforest.

Then disaster – the decline in those reefs I had seen began in 2016 from the global coral ‘bleaching’ event from a massive El Nino. They then bleached again in 2017. It was a devastating event that turned local professors of marine science into ocean advocates, speaking passionately on TED talks - watch here.

Since the halcyon days of 1992 when I was out there as a naïve manchild to now in 2017) as a withered old cynic, I’ve maintained a fascination with these biomes – and their change. I’ve managed to pursue conservation diving research projects with a PhD in Jamaica in the mid 1990s (algal covered reefs), then expedition science in Tanzania (during the 1998 bleaching event), Philippines (some great reefs; few fish) and Fiji (more bleaching). Between 1995 and 2001, I saw all these places severely degraded compared to the Great Barrier Reef in 1992-1993.

For the past 12 years I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Maldives on an annual basis with MCS, but those reefs are now also in crisis from the plethora of stressors facing them.

Annually MCS works with Biosphere Expeditions to monitor the condition of some few reefs using ReefCheck with our Maldivian partners. Some reefs are dying (with <5% coral cover), whilst others are simply changing to more temperature-resilient lifeforms (coral cover >40%). The big fish are mostly gone from the central Maldives, and we have to look harder and farther for them. Sadly.

So the talks at the European Coral Reef Symposium in Oxford are likely to be bleak, other than for the handful of people able to go to ‘pristine’ reefs (https://registry.nbnatlas.org/public/show/dr1488) - many of which still reside in isolated far away UK Overseas Territories.

I will hear from a new generation of reef scientists who will be amazed at the environment, its complexity, and wowed at the previous scientific endeavours of our ancestors in science. But few under the age of 30 will have seen what I’ve seen from the Great Barrier Reef in 1993. And that matters….

Can reefs recover? A few sticking plasters of ‘marine reserves’ and ‘no development areas’ can help in a few places perhaps. But most critically, I feel that reefs need to adapt – evolutionarily – over some short decades in order to survive the hotter waters (2 degrees temperature rise is looking more and more likely by 2099). We cannot save them. They have to save themselves.

Join us in the Maldives if you want to help our data collection.