Steven Miller, director of
the National Undersea Research Center at the University of North Carolina
at Wilmington, describes the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory's mission,
reef conservation efforts and the public's perception of the underwater
ANN BOWSER: What is it about Aquarius (Undersea Laboratory) that has such
potential to answer some of these mysteries about what's in the ocean?
STEVEN MILLER: Well, one of the big advantages of Aquarius is it gives scientists time to work underwater. If you're a coral reef biologist, you've got to dive. You've got to spend time in the environment that you're studying and conventional scuba diving is really limited. You work from the surface, you have maybe an hour a day. Imagine trying to do your job if all you had was an hour a day. Aquarius, because of the special type of diving you do, called saturation diving, gives scientists, really unlimited time to work underwater studying the coral reefs. And so that time translates to products and increased understanding of what's happened to our reef systems.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Are there any themes of significance that scientists have learned being in Aquarius? Any questions that have been answered about all of these things that are taking place?
STEVEN MILLER: Aquarius scientists focus on a lot of different issues. Water quality is at the top of everybody's list down here in terms of something that is a stress both to near shore and offshore systems. One of the things that we've learned in fact is that it's complicated. Trying to understand nutrient dynamics is more than just translating what sewage might be doing to the system. It turns out that we've been looking for the smoking gun, if you will, out in the reef tracks to identify either sewage as a potential stressor, that really causes problems, but also trying to look at the bigger picture.
There are really interesting oceanographic processes that also bring larger amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus to the reef called (inaudible). Dr. Lichter in fact has been studying that issue for several years now and the results are really interesting because it turns out that these natural processes that bring nitrogen and phosphorus to the reef, that fertilizes it if you will, what you might be seeing from sewage in a major way.
So, if sewage (inaudible) it's problem and we know it is close to shore, doesn't seem to be a problem offshore and it's only one thing among many that is affecting the condition of the reef and that perhaps is one of the take home messages from Aquarius is that there are lots of different things going on, on the reef track.
And Aquarius has afforded multiple science groups opportunities to study, not just water quality, but the condition of the corals, the sponges, how we make a living out on the reef, the kinds of things that are affecting them so.
It's really a big picture kind of thing. It's not like there's a magic bullet, a silver bullet if you will, that once we find this one spectacular piece of information we're going to save the reefs. That won't happen. What we need is a long-term sustained effort at trying to understand all the factors that affect the condition of the reef.
|Justifying reef conservation|
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But don't you need, politically, at least some science elements to say we need to protect more of the reefs off of the Keys? What would be science that could give you a smoking gun in front of Washington and say, here it is, we need to cover, like Australia, 33 percent?
STEVEN MILLER: The question about trying to justify protection of the reefs really requires taking a look at two different things. There are economics. People that live close to reefs systems, like us in Florida here, clearly are a healthy economy depends on a healthy reef system.
Science isn't necessarily going to provide the foundation to support that. It's happening at a different level. It's society that has to demand these sorts of things. We know that the reef is in bad condition because of things people do. That's part of it. It's not the whole story, but it's part of it.
The motivation, the drive to get these things done, really happens in government and policy. Scientists can provide information, we can tell you what's going on out there, but the decision making process happens at another level and so the public has to somehow feel it's not bonded to the ocean, at least part of what's happening out there in an economic or aesthetic way that will motivate them to motivate their politicians to provide the protection that we need.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How do you get people to care about this?
STEVEN MILLER: How do you get people to care? Environment is important, but these days there are a lot of things to worry about and environment is not at the top of everyone's list. Security, health care, economy, you know those are important issues that people deal with everyday.
I think people are still interested in environments, in environments, but regarding the oceans in particular, I think it's largely a mystery to them, what's down there, its condition, why they should care, and I think one of the problems that we have as scientists, is that we haven't been doing a good job explaining what's been going on, and it's really difficult to get messages to the public about dramatic change.
For example, coral reefs in Florida and throughout the Caribbean have largely been reshaped in terms of how they look and function by disease. And who knows about the reefs in the marine realm. People know about things like Dutch Elm disease and Chestnut Light and Sudden Oak Death out in California, these are things that have changed our landscape in fundamental ways.
Billions of trees have been killed and why is it not such a big issue or, or people are familiar with that? Well, there are other trees that have come in place and, you know, we still have forests. But our coral reefs, we've lost our major reef field in corals to disease and there's nothing that's come in to replace them.
So you go out and you snorkel a reef right now and it looks totally different than it did 15 to 20 years ago, and the chance of recovery is really slim. It might happen. There is some reason to be optimistic, but really dramatic things like that have happened, yet very few people know about it. Very few people snorkel. ... It's one of these systems that because it's out of sight and in many reef cases, it's also out of mind as well.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Are you an optimist or are you pessimistic about the future of your reef right here off the coast of Florida?
STEVEN MILLER: The future of reefs, I would have to say I'm pessimistic. I'm worried, but I'm not completely pessimistic. I'm optimistic because, for example, we don't have extinctions. The fish are all still there. They're smaller. There are not as many of them. We've lost huge numbers of coral. They're still there. There's potential for recovery.
So, I'm optimistic in the sense that now is the time to act. Our generation and our children have an opportunity to do things that will make a difference that will be lasting through 100 years. On the other hand, if we don't do things now, because we're really at a critical point, we've lost large numbers of fish, there's aren't as many, they're not as big.
The reefs are in bad shape because of water quality and sedimentation problems. We waited for development. There's a whole suite of things that you know you add them all up, global change, the increased temperature of our oceans is stressing coral reefs out in major ways, plus there are chemistry changes that are going on.
There's a lot happening that could be considered overwhelming. It would really be easy to get swamped in the negativity. But there are some positive things and the positive things relate, for example, to management actions that are being taken here in the Florida Keys. Setting some areas of reef aside and saying, enough. You know, no take, no fishing, let's let them recover. Let's watch what happens when we remove as much of the human influence as we can.
That's really a good news story, and so we are setting up programs, we're watching what's happening. That's a big deal and if the reefs recover, certainly the fishes, fisheries are going to recover. We know that anywhere on the planet where you provide protection, the same way that we have with our parks, you know the American public recognizes the park system as a real treasure, a jewel in our national system.
We have very few of those types of jewels in the ocean. And it's just starting. There may be 100 years behind in terms of protecting our ocean the same way we have protected our land. So you know, am I optimistic, pessimistic? I'm kind of all mixed up on it, but optimistic in the sense that there are still things that we can do to make a difference. Pessimistic because I've seen such dramatic change and I'm old enough to have seen the way we've used to look in the late 1970s.
Will we ever get back again? It's hard to say. Most people have no clue. You know their baselines have shifted. They don't know, in fact, the way things used to be -- that information gets lost. You know, finding pictures, finding video, being able to show people the way it used to be is really tough.
And the decline that we've seen has been slow. It's hasn't been really dramatic, where one day you go out there and everything's fine, and then the next day it's different and people are up in arms. So there's slow motion decline as well, this shift in our understanding, the shifting baseline syndrome, if you will, is a big problem that we have to overcome as well.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Paint a picture of what it used to be.
STEVEN MILLER: Snorkeling on reefs was spectacular 3-dimensional structure, built by branching corals, Staghorn corals, Elkhorn corals. Most corals got their name, Elkhorn, Staghorn because of the way antlers you know look on the animals that, that produce them, really, and colors.
I'm not old enough, however, to describe the way the fish communities used to look because even those are fished out 20, 30 years ago, and you can go onto the reef right now and see lots of fish, they're colorful. They're not as big as they used to be. There aren't as many.
Fishermen go out here in the Keys all the time and bring back lots of fish and they're happy and you know they're proud and they hold everything up and you know, spectacular dinners. But what they don't know is that many of the fish that people used to catch are not available. They're largely technologically extinct because they were fished out.
They're not as big and they're not as abundant. They have to go 20 miles off shore, 40 miles off shore, 100 miles off shore and before you used to just be able to paddle a canoe out to the reef to catch all this stuff. Now, it's largely gone.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Explain, as you did in this paper, how complicated all these stresses are. You can't just say it's global warming, you can't just say it's overfishing, you can't just say it's nutrients, whatever. And then if you could give us some of your own ideas, as to what you think the worst stressors are.
STEVEN MILLER: Coral reefs are complicated systems. They're described as the rainforest of the sea. In fact, they're probably a lot more complicated than rain forests. The stressors, the things that affect the condition of coral reefs in a negative way, happen regionally. They happen locally as well, and they happen globally, so there's these spatial scales of insult if you will of damage.
Locally water quality's a big problem. We know that because of how we dispose of sewage here in the Keys. We've affected the chemistry of our initial waters. The big question is, are we also affecting our reefs which are 3-and-a-half miles off shore. That's pretty far for sewage to move, and we haven't been able to detect it definitely on the reef, but it's the number one issue locally. Along with fishing.
We've overfished our reefs and the dynamics of how fishing will react with the organisms living on the reef is substantial. We don't understand the details of it, but you know, if you're looking at a coral reef, parts of it are fish, parts of it are coral, parts of it are the lobsters and the crab. We fish out 95 percent of our lobsters off these reefs every year, so the dynamics of that clearly have an effect.
Regionally, we know that water quality has been changed as well. The Gulf of Mexico is influenced quite dramatically by the Mississippi River. We can detect the Mississippi River effluents off our reefs. When you get major flooding events in the Midwest that wash fertilizers, you know, into the Gulf of Mexico, we pick that stuff up here.
When you have harmful algal blooms off the west coast of Florida on the shelf, it's caught up in currents and passes over our reefs here. The great rivers of South America, the Amazon and the Oronoco, you can detect chlorophyll emptied into the Caribbean from these rivers as far north as Puerto Rico.
And so there's a chemistry thing that's happening here regionally, but most importantly is these, is the regional influence. We have coral diseases and disease of urchins that have wiped our populations throughout the Caribbean. This is sort of like waking up one morning and all the squirrels and all the robins are gone.
Fundamental parts of our ecosystem are missing because of disease. The urchins in particular, they were like the sheep of the reef. They were really abundant. They grazed huge amounts of algae and they're mostly gone.
Water quality, you think, well what's the problem with anti nutrients in the system, you get more seaweeds. Well the urchins and the fish used to graze a lot of that seaweed and now, so you've got water quality problems and the absence of a major grazer and grazing fish as well, so it gets complicated. You can't point towards just one thing or another.
And then globally, we have global change, warming. And we know clearly that our oceans are getting warmer in corals because they're really sensitive to temperature, especially in the summer at the warmest periods for just a degree or two can stress them to the point of creating something called bleaching, where the symbiosis that defines really what a coral is is disrupted.
They bleach, they change color, their growth slows. They stop reproducing, and in many cases they die. This is something that has happened worldwide. It's not something seen by marine biologists in the '60s and '70s and '50s when they first started diving.
So you put all of those things together and you can't really say it's one or another. There are lots of advocacy groups that seize on one issue or another, and that's really good for membership, but it doesn't solve the problem.
So the scientists are working to try and understand the (inaudible) complexity, to provide things to managers because some of it you can do something about, but many things you can't, so the trick is, what can you do, what can you manage and we can clearly manage fisheries.
Ultimately you manage people, you don't manage the reef, you manage people so you can control the amount of fish that are caught, when they're caught. You can set aside areas in the ocean to protect them. So there really are things that you can do against this background of problems.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How much of the reef would you like to see set aside? What would be something that could help recovery?
STEVEN MILLER: Questions about how much reef to protect, how much to set aside, there are some scientists that say we need to set 20 percent aside. There are some that say we need to set 30 percent.
What we really need to do is identify critical areas, those places that are really special where if we set them aside we can expect really good things to happen, fish to recover, identifying special places on the reef track for example, that might be resistant to bleaching.
So it's not as simple as just defining a number. It's a number plus identifying critical areas that need to be set aside to help sustain recovery of other areas, identifying the special places that people can go to, for example, to snorkel and dive and see big fish.
But you know if you want to pin me down for a number, you know the U.S. is lagging pretty far behind. Australia has recently set aside over 30 percent of the Great Barrier Reef. New Zealand is setting aside increasing proportions of critical habitat for them.
Here in the Keys you know we're talking about small percentages of select sites being protected. We need to probably increase that in order of magnitude to at least 10 percent, 20 percent, but again working hard to identify those special places that require additional protection and also making sure that what we protect is integrated as part of a larger fisheries management program. It's not just we protect areas that are going to help us recover fishes. It's one tool in the suite of many protection management actions that we can implement to help sustain, conserve, the system.
|Future of the reefs|
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What do you think it's going to look like out there in 30 years?
STEVEN MILLER: What's it going to look like in 30 years? Probably a lot like what it looks right now. However, I said a lot of negative things about coral reefs. We're starting to see recovery of the urchins in the (inaudible) against, in many locations throughout the Caribbean. We're starting to see recovery also of some of the coral populations in different locations throughout the Caribbean.
So if this recovery is foreseen, it has the potential to really improve the overall condition of what we have here. But unless we implement fishery management practices that are different now, the fish are still going to be small. There aren't going to be as many of them, so there's really, you know, where are things going to be in 30 years? It's hard to say. The recoveries of coral that we've seen in the Keys have not been sustained. So I'm not optimistic.
But some of these corals are really fast growing. They're weedy and if they get a hold, we may really have a luxuriant system again. I don't think that's going to happen and it, and it shouldn't be used as an argument for not doing anything because you know we're a decade into the coral decline now that is, is really substantial. There are surprises.
You know we're constantly surprised, however, the theme of all of this is that we've seen dramatic decline in the ocean in coral reefs and we don't have a lot of success stories. You know, so am I optimistic? There are things that could happen. We could see the increased amounts of coral. We could see the urchins coming back. But that's against an increase in water quality problems, an increase in global warming.
How are we going to sort out, it's complicated. If I was optimistic, I'd say we have a chance, we have a good chance, but the realist in me says that the reefs that we have out there and the way they look today, it's probably going to be very similar to 10 years from now, 20 years from now. If we're lucky. It could be worse.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And if this kind of the demise of coral reefs takes place all over the world, including the Great Barrier Reef, where does that leave the world?
STEVEN MILLER: ... Why don't people care about coral reefs? I think the answer to that is really a step up. It's about the oceans. Why don't people care about the oceans? It's because they don't know. They oceans are so vast. Most people think they're so deep that they're limitless and that we can do anything to the oceans and it's going to be OK.
That's what we grew up with in the '50s and the '60s. We could pollute, we could fish as much as we want. The oceans look so large it didn't matter, in fact, then it didn't, but it's caught up with us and it does matter now and I think there's a lag in public understanding about the fact that as a species, we could damage something as so deep and vast as, as the oceans and that's what we are today. We can.
And why doesn't the public know that? That's a tough question. Scientists, I think, in general, haven't done a good job explaining what they do and why it's important. Since Costeau, there really hasn't been a public figure nationally or internationally who the public recognizes as a spokesperson for the ocean. That's a big problem.
The press these days, they tend to highlight controversy and conflict rather than trying to explain what's going on as well. So there's a very superficial presentation of these issues that you see mostly in the newspaper. The public has a hard time getting information.
Movies like "Finding Nemo" you know captures the imagination of not just children, but adults, that gives kind of a slanted view of really the condition of the oceans. You know there aren't thousands of turtles around. I mean turtles are endangered. It's a big deal. I think it's an education problem.
The public, if they knew more about what was going on, they might care. I don't think that you could make people care, but at the very least, you can explain to them, you can teach them what's going on, provide the information and whether they decide to care or not is a whole 'nother story, but we're not even doing a very good job of explaining what's going on out there.