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Guest Blog: Intriguing Realities of Coral Reef Degradation and the New Baselines for Conservation

The end of February saw the publication of a package of papers in PLoS ONE and PLoS Biology describing the findings of a Scripps Institution of Oceanography/UC San Diego research expedition to the remote Line Islands of the Central Pacific. The Academic Editor of the two PLoS ONE articles, Niyaz Ahmed, has posted comments on both papers but here is an extract from his commentary on one of the articles, Baselines and Degradation of Coral Reefs in the Northern Line Islands, and on the package as a whole:


Imagine a medical microbiologist mutating into a coral-reef ecologist! This came true when I was recently handling two interlinked manuscripts at PLoS ONE (1, 2) and following an extremely exhaustive and rigorous peer-review, more so than I have ever seen, I myself became deeply interested in the field of coral reef ecology!

It is now two weeks since these articles were published and an overwhelming interest of the community is already evident from many evaluations and blog posts apart from wide media coverage that these articles have elicited. Beyond this, I thought an 'outsider's perspective' on the 'PLoS coral reef package' is really needed. I am sure such a perspective as this will catalyze start of a discussion involving also the non-experts apart from the coral community members.

In the current scenario of colossal public attention to environmental problems and far-reaching consequences of related studies published in open-access journals, the science of coral reef ecology seems to have stratified into two major paradigms: A) coral reef degradation is the outcome of direct human impacts such as overfishing and development and conservation efforts therefore, should focus on these aspects and B) decline of corals is largely the result of global climate change and microbial 'pathogens' and conservation resources should focus on these issues. Obviously these are the two extremes which need to be balanced. The ‘PLoS coral-reef package’ [comprising of the paper of Sandin and colleagues (1) published together with another article in PLoS ONE (2) and an essay at PLoS Biology (3)] indeed denotes that the much-needed balancing act has just started.

The authors convey (1, 3) that coral reefs in remote areas with less human inhabitation support thriving of more fishes and commonly have healthier and bountiful corals than reefs in more populated areas. They suggest that local protection of reef trophic structure may be critical in their conservation (1). However, they also warn of the poor understanding that prevails about the natural reef trophic structure and community organization. Moreover, because the present day reefs are so deranged and altered, studying them to understand natural reef function may be like studying cattle ranches in the tropics to understand function of the tropical forests that were long replaced by the ranches.

1) Sandin SA, Smith JE, DeMartini EE, Dinsdale EA, Donner SD, et al. (2008) Baselines and Degradation of Coral Reefs in the Northern Line Islands. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1548. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001548

2) Dinsdale EA, Pantos O, Smriga S, Edwards RA, Angly F, et al. (2008) Microbial Ecology of Four Coral Atolls in the Northern Line Islands. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1584. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001584

3) Knowlton N, Jackson JBC (2008) Shifting Baselines, Local Impacts, and Global Change on Coral Reefs. PLoS Biol 6(2): e54 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060054

You can read the rest of Niyaz's post here and you can post your own reactions and comments directly on the Sandin paper and on the Dinsdale paper by creating an account on the PLoS ONE website. Why not contribute to the discussion today?

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