Because the governments of the world have yet to undertake any meaningful efforts to mitigate climate change, it is of the utmost importance that locally caused stressors to reefs such as overfishing and deforestation are minimized”Cramer, study lead author
“Because researchers did not really begin to study Caribbean reefs in detail until the late 1970s, we don’t have a clear understanding of why these reefs have changed so dramatically since this time,” said Cramer. “So, we set out to reconstruct an older timeline of change on reefs by looking at the remains of past reefs – coral skeletons and mollusk shells.”To reconstruct this timeline, the team dug below modern reefs in incremental layers and, using radiocarbon dating of the coral skeletons they found, linked fluctuations in the types and numbers of coral and mollusks over time to historical records of land clearing. Changes in the relative numbers of these various species represent clear indicators of the overall health of the coral reef. The team also improved upon the standard technique of taking long, narrow core samples of coral fossils that cannot track fluctuations in the numbers of larger species of coral.
“We wanted to look at the whole complement of the coral community,” said Cramer.To catalog the relative numbers of dozens of coral and molluscan species, the researchers dug two-foot-wide by three-foot-deep pits into reefs at several coastal lagoon and offshore sites near Bocas del Toro, Panama, that were heavily affected and less affected by land runoff, respectively. At each of these sites they also conducted surveys and recorded the composition of living corals.
“We dug up over a ton of coral rubble and tens of thousands of shells,” said Cramer, who led the fieldwork at STRI and likened the laborious experience to doing underwater construction.Systematically sifting through the coral and shell fossils, the scientists noted several indicators of environmental stress, including a decrease in the overall size of bivalves such as oysters, clams, and scallops, a transition from branching to non-branching species of coral, and large declines in the staghorn coral and the tree oyster, which were once the dominant coral and bivalve on these reefs. These indicators were observed in layers of the excavated pits at coastal lagoon sites that were dated before 1960 and as far back as the 1800s, corresponding to a period of extensive deforestation in the Bocas del Toro region. Similar evidence of environmental stress at offshore sites was dated after 1960, indicating that the negative impacts of land clearing have more recently begun to affect reefs further offshore. With the decline of the branching coral species, the reefs now have fewer nooks and crannies that are used as habitat for reef fish and other organisms. Also, the non-branching species that have taken their place grow at a much slower rate. “Consequently, there is less of a chance that the reefs will be able to keep up with sea level rise from climate change,” said Cramer.
“Because the governments of the world have yet to undertake any meaningful efforts to mitigate climate change, it is of the utmost importance that locally caused stressors to reefs such as overfishing and deforestation are minimized,” said Cramer. “Advocating for more intelligent use of land as well as implementing sustainable fisheries management, those are things that can be done right now.”The research team, which also includes Jill Leonard-Pingel of Scripps, Thomas Guilderson of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Christopher Angioletti, will publish its findings in the April issue of Ecology Letters. An early online version has been released today. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps, the UC San Diego Academic Senate, and the Project AWARE Foundation. Photo courtesy of Lauretta Burke, World Resources Institute, 2007