In 2014, rising sea temperatures and a strong El Niño kickstarted the world’s worst coral bleaching event. Over the next three years, it is estimated that as much as 70 percent of the world’s reefs were damaged to some extent. In some places, entire coral ecosystems turned into white, algae-crusted wastelands, almost overnight. Two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef died or was damaged.
And this incredible scourge, likely to continue given the generally upward trend of sea temperatures for the foreseeable future, is not what has scientists in the Caribbean breaking coral reef Rule Number One, and hacking the reefs to pieces in a desperate attempt to save them. These days, you dodge one environmental bullet, a few more are loaded up and ready to fly.
In a feat of uncreative naming, the new threat is known as Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. It was first described a few years ago on the reef that lines the southeast coast of Florida, but its spread has since accelerated through the Florida Keys and down into the U.S. Virgin Islands. It is estimated that around 40 percent of Caribbean coral reefs might be vulnerable. Once the disease hits, it has between a 66 and 100 percent chance of killing off that particular reef; it does so within a few weeks.
According to Reuters:
The disease prompts rapid tissue loss, appearing first as white patches that sprawl out across the coral, before eventually stripping it of color and life altogether.
The language both news reports and scientists themselves have used to characterize it is chilling. It has been “raging like an inferno” through the world’s most biodiverse marine ecosystem. The word “ravaged” comes up a lot. Marilyn Brandt, a researcher at the University of the Virgin Islands, said: “I have never seen anything that affects so many species, so quickly and so viciously—and it just continues.”
Scientists are now breaking up reefs affected by—sigh—SCTLD, hoping to stop its spread. Others are working on figuring out what it actually is—what pathogen is causing it, which might help us stop it. And they’re doing this knowing that at any moment, the next coral bleaching event might render all those efforts moot.
Historically, environmentalism was couched in terms of some specific goal—Save the Whales, say. But this doesn’t really capture how the natural world works. I don’t mean to go all James Lovelock/Gaia theory on you, but it’s far too interconnected a system to think that efforts to just “save” something will work the way you want them to.
You can stop whaling, or change the shipping lanes so you’re less likely to literally run a whale over, but that ignores the slow and steady damage you’re doing to whales and probably most other marine creatures through essentially screaming into their ears at all times. All the sound our boats and drills and so on pour into the water have an enormous effect on animals. Good job, you saved the whales; maybe give them some peace and quiet for a minute?
And that’s before we get into what humans are doing to krill populations, the most important food source for baleen whales, and probably twenty other things we’ve done to ruin their lives. You could do this for almost any vulnerable target. You can ban sunscreen that isn’t reef-friendly, but how do you account for the weakened state all corals are probably now in as a result of just existing on the same fucking planet as the most destructive goddamn species since Galactus?
Back to that Reuters report, on the spot near Miami where the disease was first found:
The coral in the area were already stressed from the dredging and a recent bleaching event, so it was unsurprising they got hit with a disease, the scientists told Reuters. Like with a human body, a weakened immune system can make coral more susceptible to disease.
This is an essentially inevitable result of human activity. We are too loud, too expansive, too big and greedy and just too many to think that we’re not simply changing the water in which everything else on the planet swims. Save the whales, whatever—nothing we do is only one thing.
This is why the calls to deregulate (yes, I’m back on deregulation) whatever thing—water quality or air quality or natural gas drilling or anything else—that are based on the success of the regulations themselves are so infuriating.
“Why do we need the Endangered Species Act?” they crow, pointing to the pile of bald eagles mauling some fish in a pickup truck’s bed. “Rivers haven’t caught on fire in decades, we don’t need the Clean Water Act!”
You’re so close to getting it, pal.
There isn’t any particular regulation at play with the corals and their multitude of threats (beyond, say, the rollback of any minuscule attempt to stop burning fossil fuels and heating the oceans until we can comfortably cook some ramen in them). But it’s a good demonstration of how ill-prepared we still are to confront our own environmental effects. We don’t know what caused this particular new disease; maybe it’s a random bacteria that has been hanging around for millennia, but now it seized an opportunity because we have so degraded the corals basic existence. If someone just slowly pulled away layers from the walls of your house until there’s not much between you and the outdoors, and also bombarded you with noise and plastic bottles and sewage at all hours of the day, you might be suddenly a bit more susceptible to Coral Ebola too.
I don’t have some grand suggestion here, but weakening the law based on the very principle of environmental caution in human activity sure as shit isn’t it. The coral scientists have decided to take unprecedented steps, ripping up corals they thought they were trying to protect. “We tend to just study these events. We monitor them. We try to research what to do. We just watch it happen and assume that Mother Nature is going to be able to take the reins and everything’s going to be fine,” said one researcher in Florida. But that strategy isn’t good enough anymore.
“We can’t just watch these corals all die in front of us.”
For a while now, scientists have postulated the existence of “Planet Nine,” an as-of-yet unseen mass somewhere in the outer reaches of the solar system, because the stuff we do know about out past Neptune doesn’t behave exactly as we think it should. Some scientists are suggesting that the planet isn’t really a planet: what if, instead, it was a black hole, left over from the early days of the universe, that could fit in the palm of your hand. Fun!
To Elon Musk and his “starship,” I say only:
This is a good feature by D.T. Max on robotic surgery. Watch out for that calling card of all start-up/move-fast-and-break-things types, the quote from a surgery robot company guy about how the real obstacle will be the “regulatory environment.” (So I have a thing. Sue me.)
Hey so could you do me a solid and like and share this post? Gonna keep asking until all of you do. Thanks.
notes from [gestures around]
In a nondescript corner of Serangan Island, which is vaguely attached to Bali in Indonesia, is the Turtle Conservation and Education Center. A government-supported enterprise, they rescue and rehabilitate injured sea turtles (one there had tumors on both its eyes, which, wild), and maintain a hatchery in order to juice the odds a bit in favor of some vulnerable animals. It’s a nice place.
There is a small fenced-in area filled with sand—little more than a large sandbox, really—where eggs that have been pulled from beaches (to protect from the ubiquitous beach dogs, mostly) will sit for a few weeks until hatching.
Once they do, the energetic hatchlings (all of the hatchlings are Bali’s most common species, the olive ridley), just an inch or two long, are transferred to a series of tanks to swim around and gain some strength—there’s a one-day-old tank, a two-day-old tank, and a three-day-old tank.
At that point, it’s time to release them back into the ocean. But the Center has a fun way to raise some funds: visitors, who otherwise pay nothing to wander around and ask a bunch of questions and gaze into these tanks at all the adorable turtles, can “adopt” a turtle, for 150,000 IDR—not much more than ten bucks. You get to name your turtle (ours were named Quizzo and Flagstaff, for reasons not worth going into), and you get to scoop the one you choose out of its tank in a little container, and move it to a basket in the next tank over. They are absurdly cute.
If you have the time, you can meet the Center’s experts about an hour a away at the beach (happens around 3:30 PM each day, I think), where you yourself get to release your specific little Squirt into the ocean, where it will still probably enjoy some remarkably low percentage chance of survival (but hey, better than being munched by a beach dog!). If you don’t (we didn’t), you give them an email address and they’ll send you a video within a few days of your turtle being released.
All in the name of government-sanctioned sea turtle conservation! I guess not everything is dark and awful.