Tag Archives: reef

Misinformation in Ecotourism: An Example from the Great Barrier Reef

Miscommunication concerning ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef can be extremely harmful to their future. I recently encountered a frustrating example of such misinformation. (Image Credit: Workfortravel, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Scientific communication is at the forefront of what we do here at Ecology for the Masses. We like to celebrate good examples of SciComm whenever we can. But every now and then it’s misused so overtly that you have to talk about it. So today I want to share a recent example of scientific communication that confused and worried me.

In the last month I’ve been lucky enough to travel around Australia with my partner and our son. We’ve seen rainforests, reefs and the outback, and we’ve had a great time. The Great Barrier Reef was a definite highlight; it was number one on my partner’s bucket list and I have great memories of it from when I was a kid. And it was on the reef that this misuse of scientific communication occurred.

We went out on the reef twice. The first time was with Ocean Safari, a group who I won’t hesitate to recommend. We saw a green sea turtle, stingrays, and more fish species than I could count. And when the tour ended, the guide spoke briefly about mass bleaching and why minimising our impact on the climate was so important to ensure the future of the reef. Perfect.

But on our second trip out, we used a different company. During the trip out to the reef, my partner was at a talk held by a marine biologist on the reef. I missed quite the show apparently, as my partner came back looking slightly confused. The biologist had told people that the temperatures on the reef for the last two years had been ‘perfect’, that the coral reefs would easily recover from bleaching, and that they would plant new ‘supercoral’ to restore the reefs.

Now I don’t want to spend too much time arguing that the guide was wrong. If you need convincing, please read my interview with Sean Connolly. In short, extreme warming events in 2016 and 2017 led to mass bleaching (in 2016 on a global scale). Temperatures were NOT ‘perfect’. Some coral does re-uptake algae after bleaching, but they often starve to death before they are able to do this, which happened on a massive scale over the last two years. And whilst coral restoration can work on a small scale, it is costly and time-consuming.

But why did this irritate me so much? In Australia we’re constantly faced with misinterpretation and downright lies about the reef from anti-conservation politicians all the time. Why is this worse?

It’s because the guide was someone posited as an ‘expert’, and asked to speak in front of people who were assumed to have little knowledge about the concept of coral bleaching. Most Australians are aware at least of the fact that the reef is in danger, but the group on the boat were mostly from overseas. So they hear a marine biologist speak, and assume that those words are fact. The take-away message from the talk becomes one of negligence; nothing to worry about here, nothing needs to be done to help. At worst, that attitude even spreads to people they talk to later on.

It also angered me because talks like the one given are excellent opportunities for scientific communication. You have a group of people who are obviously interested in seeing an ecosystem and are about to enter it, so it’s the perfect moment to engage them in the ecological and conservation issues surrounding that ecosystem. It’s a great way to spread ecological awareness. Unfortunately it was used here to spread misinformation. I can only get so angry at the biologist here though, as the message has clearly been condoned by the company, and they need to take responsibility. Confusing, seeing as there future livelihood depends on that of the reef.

The Great Barrier Reef, along with countless other ecosystems worldwide, are not doing well. But with a concerted effort from the scientific community and the public we hope to keep informed, they’re hopefully not beyond repair. But the damage done by misinformation in this sort of forum needs to be mitigated, as quickly as possible.

The Shifting of Ecological Baselines

Bushfires like the ones that have ravaged Australia and California this year could become the new norm for the generation that has been born in the last decade, an example of how our perception of ecological change is defined by what has happened in our lifetime

Bushfires like the ones that have ravaged Australia and California this year, could become the new norm for the generation that has been born in the last decade, an example of how our perception of ecological change is defined by what has happened in our lifetime (Image Credit: dm4244, CC BY-SA 4.0)

It’s no secret that our world has undergone rapid changes in the last few decades. Extreme weather events are becoming almost the norm and species seem to be going extinct every minute. But as depressing as this may seem, the general doom and gloom we hear about the world on a daily basis still only represents a small percentage of the ills we’ve inflicted on our planet since we’ve been here.

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Sean Connolly: The Future of the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef has experienced mass mortality in recent years. But can we save it, and how do we impose the severity of its condition on the public?

The Great Barrier Reef has experienced mass mortality in recent years. But can we save it, and how do we impose the severity of its condition on the public? (Image Credit: Kyle Taylor, CC BY 2.0)

When I was a child, I was dragged around my home country of Australia on a family holiday. After days stuck in a back seat fighting with my sister we reached Cairns, and spent a day on the Great Barrier Reef, one of Australia’s premier tourist attractions and a biodiversity hotspot, home to a myriad of corals, fish and other marine life. It was incredible.

But nowadays, tourists are flocking to the reef to say goodbye. Extreme weather events in 2016 and 2017 left a massive portion of the reef (whose lagoon is the size of Italy) completely bleached, with coral dying at unprecedented rates.

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Finding the Key to Reef Shark Conservation

Reef accessibility impairs the protection of sharks (2018) Juhel et al., Journal of Applied Ecology 55

Species such as this Carribean reef shark have higher extinction risks than most fish. But how effective are our management efforts?

Species such as this Carribean reef shark have higher extinction risks than most fish. But how effective are our management efforts? (Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

The Crux

The importance of sharks goes well beyond what Jaws did to Hollywood, or one week in the USA each July. In any reef ecosystem, sharks perform a key functional role, exerting top-down pressure, stabilising food webs, and improving general ecosystem functioning. They’re also ‘charismatic’ species, meaning they’re easier to raise funding for, and bring money in through tourism. Yet pressure from fishing suggests that reef shark populations may be under threat, and with high body sizes and long lifespans, their populations are more sensitive than most to overfishing, making extinction risks higher.

Yet the lack of data on shark populations means that the effectiveness of the few existing management programs is largely untested. This paper looks at Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), areas in which national or international bodies prevent fishing or even entry, to see whether or not they are an effective conservation method for shark populations.

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The Case for Environmental Optimism

Almost a year ago, the current President of the United States pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. At that point, the scientific community, climate change activists, and anyone with a passing interest in science (and, you know, the survival of our species) could have been forgiven for thinking that we had finally forsaken our planet. Yet at the STARMUS Festival last year in Trondheim, I was particularly struck by American coral reef biologist Nancy Knowlton’s words on Earth Optimism, and why all may not be lost just yet.

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