Eminent coral reef ecologist Jeremy Jackson recently gave a talk at TED called How we wrecked the ocean, which presents a popular version of his research on the long-term human impact on the ocean.
In a commentary Shifting Baselines, Local Impacts, and Global Change on Coral Reefs in PLoS Biology coral reef ecologists Nancy Knowlton and Jeremy Jackson write:
Imagine trying to understand the ecology of tropical rainforests by studying environmental changes and interactions among the surviving plants and animals on a vast cattle ranch in the center of a deforested Amazon, without any basic data on how the forest worked before it was cleared and burned. The soil would be baked dry or eroded away and the amount of rainfall would be greatly decreased. Most of the fantastic biodiversity would be gone. The trees would be replaced by grasses or soybeans, the major grazers would be leaf-cutter ants and cattle, and the major predators would be insects, rodents, and hawks. Ecologists could do experiments on the importance of cattle for the maintenance of plant species diversity, but the results would be meaningless for understanding the rainforest that used to be or how to restore it in the future.
This lack of a baseline for pristine marine ecosystems is particularly acute for coral reefs, the so-called rainforests of the sea, which are the most diverse marine ecosystems and among the most threatened [4–8]. Most of the world’s tropical coastal oceans are so heavily degraded locally that “pristine” reefs are essentially gone, even if one ignores changes associated with already rising temperatures and acidity . Most modern (post-SCUBA) ecological studies have focused on reef ecosystems that are moderately to severely degraded, and we have a much better understanding of transitions between human-dominated and collapsed reefs than between human-dominated and quasi-pristine reefs.
Knowlton and Jackson’s essay is a comment on an article in PLoS One Baselines and Degradation of Coral Reefs in the Northern Line Islands by Stuart Sandin and others that describes a large scale marine community assessment across a gradient of human dominated to relatively little impacted reefs in the Pacific. The study found that large predatory fish and reef-building organisms dominated the reefs around unpopulated islands, but around populated islands the reefs were dominated by small planktivorous fishes and fleshy algae. The reefs around populated islands exhibited more coral disease and less coral recruitment, suggesting that protection from overfishing and pollution may increase the resilience of coral reefs. The authors write:
Thus, local protection from overfishing and pollution may enhance ecosystem resilience to warm episodes and coral bleaching that result from global warming. To test this we need to determine how do coral recruitment, growth, and survivorship respond to changes in local community structure due to fishing, and how do these responses interact with episodes of warming measured by DHW. We also need to determine how fish productivity, i.e., the key currency of fisheries management, varies with changes in food web structure such as those observed between Kingman and Kiritimati. The only way to answer these questions is by investigation of reefs like the northern Line Islands that have remained remarkably intact in comparison to the global norm. They are among the only baselines that remain.