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Scientists Converge for Coral Reef Symposium

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-11-10

On Friday, October 29, some of the world's leading researchers on coral reefs gathered at the Okinawa Prefectural Government Office for the "International Symposium on Coral Bleaching and the Future of Coral Reefs."

Various scientists attending the symposium presented important studies about the effects of coral bleaching on the world's reefs. Dr. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Sydney, Dr. Takuro Shibuno of the Subtropics Ecosystem Research Laboratory in Ishigaki, and Dr. Charles E. Birkeland from the University of Guam gave the keynote lectures.

"The conditions of our coral reefs have become a global issue," said Dr. Hidetake Kakihana, Chairman of the Research Institute for Subtropics, during his welcome address. "I believe the entire world is concerned with these issues."

Kakihana called for more joint research, and relayed his hopes that the new coral reef research station on Ishigaki Island will be able to lend valuable data to other coral reef research projects occurring around the globe.

For Okinawa, which is home to over 90% of Japan's coral reef population, the conference was very significant because of the concern over the devastation to the island's reefs caused by last year's bleaching. Like many places where coral reefs exist in the world, Okinawa's corals were hit hard by one of the worst cases of bleaching ever recorded. Many scientists think that the phenomenon was directly related to a rise in sea temperatures, which is believed to be responsible for the expulsion of the coral's zooxanthellae - a microscopic algae that lives in a symbiotic relationship with the coral polyp, supplying it with most of its energy through photosynthesis.

Dr. Hoegh-Guldgerg pointed out that the temperature of the world's tropical seas has increased about 1 C over the last century. During his lecture he referred to the importance of studying how tolerant corals will become towards thermal change in order to understand the long-term effects of bleaching. Like many scientists, however, Hoegh-Guldberg is alarmed over the current conditions of coral reefs. "According to a number of people I have spoken to, this is an unprecedented event," he said. "Everything points to the fact that corals lack the ability to adjust to sea temperature changes."

At reef checkpoints in Ishigaki, Dr. Shibuno was able to record changes in the amount of certain fish species after bleaching had occurred. "There was an increase in herbivores, while coral polyp eaters almost completely disappeared," said Shibuno about the results of one checkpoint being monitored at Ishigaki.

Although large sections of reefs around the world have been killed off in the past by outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish and through natural disasters such as typhoons, in many cases the area was able to recover. But the University of Guam's Dr. Birkeland believes that the element of human impact on the environment has begun to diminish the reef ecosystem's natural ability to rebound. "In normal conditions, herbivorous fish will eat the algae giving new recruits a chance to cement and for the reef to recover," he explained. (Algae growth on corals occurs after they have lost their pigment and are no longer living.)

Birkeland gave several examples of different reefs that have yet to recover, even after decades. "Off the north coast of Jamaica, a hurricane in 1981 destroyed the reef. Herbivorous fish had been over-fished in that region for decades. Since there were no fish to eat the overgrown algae, the reef has yet to recover and is today still covered with algae." He continued by saying, "Human activities are happening more rapidly than recovery."

Keeping in mind the probability of future coral bleaching episodes, along with the constant threat of coastal development, all of the panelists who attended last week's symposium agreed that conducting more research on coral reefs was extremely important. Many Japanese scientists expect that Okinawa will play a greater role in the future of coral reef studies.

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