Leading Coral Experts Prepare For Symposium in Hawaii

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Credit Flickr / NOAA's National Ocean Service

Hundreds of the world’s top ocean scientists will gather in Honolulu next month for the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium. It’s the first time the conference will be held in Hawai‘i. 

Leading coral experts say it’s a critical time for our reefs. Warming sea temperatures and increased ocean acidification are continuing to stress these ecosystems. Human activity has also taken a toll: overfishing, runoff of sewage and sediments from the shore.

“We can’t keep doing things the way we’re doing them now and expect there to be anything left,” said Robert Richmond, the director of Kewalo Marine Laboratory in Honolulu. He’s also organizing this year’s International Coral Reef Symposium.

Severely bleached coral at Lisianski Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands during a 2014 survey.
Credit NOAA

Richmond says the dire outlook for coral reefs is not for lack of scientific research. Richmond says a recent article search brought up 15,000 papers and publications about coral reefs.

“How come we know so much more and the reefs are doing worse than ever,” asked Richmond. “We really need to have a wakeup call here.”

Richmond believes the answer may lie in bridging science and application in the real world. That idea is also the running theme for this year’s symposium. It’s not just scientists that are invited. Policy makers and political leaders from the Pacific Islands will also be attending.

Ruth Gates, director of the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawai‘i, says that’s an important step. She says normally what happens at this type of conference is scientists just end up talking to other scientists.

“In order for our science to have impact, we have to stop assuming that it does,” said Gates. “And we have to actually talk about why it does and what we can use our science to facilitate in terms of action.”

Gates says change driven by a community is not an idealistic goal. She points to the example of Kāne‘ohe Bay. For decades it had been used as a dumping ground for raw sewage until 1978. By then, the bay had turned into a mucky soup of overgrown algae and little coral remained. But a series of actions driven by people to remove the algae, resulted in a gradual return to healthy reefs. Unfortunately, now many of those same corals are faced with another threat: bleaching.

But Robert Richmond stressed it isn’t all doom and gloom. “I don’t want people to come away and say, ‘game’s over, turn off the light and close the door,’” he said. “It’s quite the opposite. We wouldn’t have taken on the coral reef symposium if we didn’t have an overwhelming faith that we can turn things around by controlling local stressors and providing good, solid information on what we can do to reign in climate change so that there is something left for the future.”

Hawai‘i will welcome more than 2,500 coral reef experts from 70 different nations at this year’s symposium. It’s expected to generate $9.4 million to the state’s economy.