Temp Expert, Wk 4
This week I decided to delve deeper into my research on coral reefs. Now, normally I wouldn’t advocate Wikipedia for serious research but I find that Wikipedia is great for exploratory practices. So, I opened the article on coral reefs and let the internet black hole lead me from there.
1. Coral diseases
I started finding that there were a couple of topics related to coral reefs that really grab me. The biggest are the diseases that are killing off coral in large amounts and when I say large I mean LARGE, like 90% of the coral in the caribbean has been decimated. I found out that my friend actually does research on white band disease, a virus-based infection that is highly prevalent in the caribbean. In fact, a paper she co-authored is cited in the wikipedia article on WBD. There still unsure exactly the causes of WBD, but they believe that rising ocean temperatures contribute to the spreading of the disease and that those rising temperatures are directly related to human activity.
Coral bleaching is fascinating since it occurs when the coral is under duress and expels the zooxanthellae that live in the coral. The coral turns white because coral doesn’t naturally have color – they get it from their symbiotic relationship with these organisms who undergo photosynthesis. When the zooxanthellae leave, the coral loses its color as well as 90% of their nutrients. There are a couple of different reasons why scientists believe coral bleaching is happening, one recent study finds its source in a viral infection.
2. Sunscreen = coral killer
Another interesting fact is that sunscreen has been shown to have a toxic effect on coral colonies. I found this absolutely fascinating, because I’ve just never imagined the possibility of wearing sunscreen having a negative consequence. Of course, this is directly related to ecotourism efforts, so it becomes one of those situations that we talked about in class last week – making positive environmental changes might adversely affect things that are good for our economy, in this case the tourism industry and its role as the main source of income for many of these tropical regions.
3. The coral trade/tourism
An image that came to mind as I begin my research was of a wealthy, white woman wearing coral jewelry. Reminded me of people in the Philadelphia main line suburbs, where I went to high school. I was curious if coral trading was a practiced but frowned-upon activity. Turns out that most decorative coral is actually fake, and that yes, it is frowned-upon to trade in coral. Most aquarium dealers don’t touch the stuff (and apparently it’s notoriously difficult to clean). Came across this fantastic article about the coral trade, its criminal potential. Coral is sold as interior decorations, jewelry and souvenir items. What’s interesting in that most coral used for souvenir purposes doesn’t even come from the region where it’s sold.
I think what resonated most was that the people in the Solomon Islands killing the coral to sell were doing this because they were so impoverished. This got me interested in thinking about the post-colonial implications and relationship to coral degradation, as well as the relationship between tourism and coral death. In some countries, coral reef related tourism makes up for 80% of their economy.
The last direction that I was looking into was coral’s ability to adapt and survive some of the stressors that often put it at risk. Coral bleaching can be reversed and WBD can be cured. It was also found that coral in the Indian Ocean has actually adapted to warmer temperatures and murkier waters, leading some to hope that coral will not decline as rapidly as some would believe – because the numbers are absolutely terrifying, with many varieties considered on the brink of extinction and all will be under threat by 2050. Ken Nedimyer in Florida is often cited as someone who is working tirelessly to save coral by creating coral farms. It’s interesting because rather than frame it as an ecological initiative, Nedimyer recognizes the profit capabilities of coral and the huge economic losses that will occur if coral is wiped out.
I was also curious about artificial reefs, but didn’t get as far with that research. I like the idea of using trash/recycled materials to provide new homes for coral – possibly a win-win. However, there is some research that According to The Ocean Conservancy, a Washington-based environmental group, the benefits of artificial reefs need to be re-examined. Jack Sobel, a senior scientist at the group, has said “There’s little evidence that artificial reefs have a net benefit,” citing concerns such as toxicity, damage to ecosystems and concentrating fish into one place (worsening overfishing).
BRINGING IT TOGETHER
At this point, I’ve started to see some themes and connections emerge across my research. I’m very interested in this motif of whiteness that keeps creeping up – from bleaching to WBD, to sunscreen used to protect skin (and make sure it stays white), to the implications of colonialism in devastating tropical economies.
Right now, one thought is to do an installation of all white objects (including dead or fake coral). I’m thinking about using this collection of objects as a canvas for a mapped projection, so I can work with different kinds of footage as well as play with color, animating color to mimic coral bleaching.
I want the imagery to speak to not only the environmental implications of the disappearance of coral reefs, but the human impact. I think it’s still hard for people to realize the importance of coral reefs to human sustainability world wide. And that might have to do with the fact that it is a problem that affects primarily impoverished, formerly colonized and very much marginalized communities. They are the ones who will lose a source of income, food, as well as protection from erosion and storms. Coral reefs don’t exist in this quantity or have as much importance in the Global North (though this also depends on how we think about Australia in this context). Thus US has made some strides and has given money to actively look for solutions to coral disease as well as coral restoration.
Another interesting point I came across is that people are generally not as phased by coral death as they are with other, “cuter” animals. Dead coral doesn’t have the same kind of imagery as dead dolphins. So how do we change this perception and make people care more about this situation? How do we make people feel empathy for coral?
EDIT: Here’s a great, fast rundown on why coral depletion is not simply a marine conservancy effort, but one that affects humankind as well
I’m contacted my friend who is pursuing PhD research in marine biology at Northeastern and recently wrote a paper on the causes of WBD.
I’m going to contact Kate Lunz, the scientist who was interviewed for the article on the coral trade. I had a hard time finding her contact info, but LinkedIn tells me that my friend is a mutual contact so I asked her if she would provide me with her email.
I’m also looking into contacting an anthropologist who studies the impact of coral reef disappearance on tropical communities.