Who to Believe?

In late May a spate of news reports highlighted a scientific study just published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. It reported a large decline in coral cover and the abundance and diversity of reef fishes on eight study reefs in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea.  Some species were even described as becoming locally extinct. It sounded as if the reefs in Kimbe Bay had been devastated.
      Kimbe Bay is one of the world's premiere dive destinations and strangely I had heard nothing of this in the dive world. Curious, I looked up the actual study on the National Academy website and downloaded it. The study however, did not describe exactly what reefs were studied nor the kind of reef habitats involved. I wondered if the study reefs might in fact be shallow areas selected because they had been damaged by recent bleaching events or sedimentation so that the ongoing effects of such events could be studied.
      I then sent an e-mail to Max Benjamin the owner/operator of Walindi Plantation Resort in Kimbe Bay asking his take on the situation and he replied: "The reefs studied by Geoff Jones are coastal and fringing in the extreme south west of the bay. There is very little current movement and several bleaching events and land clearing adjacent to these reefs at the same time combined to knock the hell out of them. This is why they were chosen. Also on his last visit this April, Geoff reported recovery on all reefs. They are not and never have been among the portfolio of diving reefs. This area is very subject to bleaching. In 1983 one reef was totally killed off, however an REA in 1994 recorded this reef as having the highest number of coral species ( over 150 ) of all reefs covered by the survey."
      I also received this response from Dr. Geoff Jones, the senior author of the study: "The area affected extends from Hoskins to Talasea and to reefs up to 1-2 km offshore. Most of Max's good diving reefs are still OK, although there is some signs that reef flats are being affected further offshore. We didn't really select our sites to monitor because of the potential impacts... that all just happened while we were monitoring our reserve areas. We are still hopeful of a recovery, but not very optimistic."
      I thanked Dr. Jones for his prompt response and said I would be most interested in his assessment of the general condition of reefs in the bay as a whole and what portion of them might have suffered the sort of drastic decline found on the study reefs. To this question there was no reply and one must assume he prefers not to  moderate the impression of devastation already achieved.
      In many places nearshore reefs occur in areas where they are particularly vulnerable to storms, floods and high temperatures. It is common for such reefs to suffer periodic devastation interspersed with intervals of recovery whenever a succession of favourable years permits. It appears from Max Benjamin's description that such is the case for the extreme southwest of Kimbe Bay.
      Sorting out long term trends from short term fluctuations and human impacts from natural events in complex dynamic natural communities is difficult and requires much more long term information than is usually available. The assumption that short term localized observations represent long term general conditions reflects more of our current scientific ignorance of reefs than it does our knowledge of them.
      A report of healthy reefs undergoing natural and/or short term fluctuations in some remote bay in Papua New Guinea is of little interest to the world. However, discovering a serious decline in reef conditions in a formerly pristine region garners worldwide media attention, scientific recognition, and support for further research.
      Describing species as having become "locally extinct" when due to changing conditions they are temporarily absent from some particular small areas is a good dramatic touch as well.  Not mentioning that they remain abundant in immediately adjacent areas however, is misleading.  Good drama can be poor science.
      We find what we seek and see what we believe. The currently prevailing climate of eco-alarmism is generating a blizzard of concerns that threatens to obscure our ability to discriminate the genuine from hype and imagination. At the same time science, our best tool for deriving truth, is being blunted and corroded by its misuse for advocacy and attention getting. Amidst all the noise real problems become obscured and receive little or no attention while we chase the demons of our imagination.
      To close on a more positive note, the Status of Fisheries of the United States report for 2003  has just been released by NOAA and it shows considerable progress was made in 2003 to address excessive fishing rates and rebuild fish stocks to healthy levels. In 2003, four more fish stocks were deemed fully rebuilt, a record ten species were removed from the list of overfished stocks and overfishing practices were stopped for five species.
      Of the 894 federally managed U.S. fish stocks reported upon only 76 are now classified as overfished and almost all the overfished ones are rebuilding under fishery management plans. Plans are also under development for the few stocks that remain without them.
      In view of the recent widely publicized claims of a 90% reduction in global pelagic fish stocks it is interesting that less than 10% of U.S. stocks are considered overfished. It would appear that the world’s fishes must all be seeking shelter in U.S. waters.
      The Status of Fisheries report may be viewed at:

 Walter Starck