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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Coral Reefs

Air Date: Week of

Coral reefs have long been in trouble, but the challenges they face are changing. Host Steve Curwood talks with reporter John Ryan, who was in Bali, Indonesia for the Ninth International Coral Reef Symposium.


CURWOOD: Scientists from around the world have just wrapped up the Ninth International Coral Reef Symposium held in Bali, Indonesia, this year. In the past, this gathering has focused on local problems involving reef protection. Problems like over-fishing, tourism, and farm runoff. Seattle-based journalist John Ryan attended the conference. He joins me on the phone from Bali, where delegates to this year's coral reef symposium have broadened their agenda.

RYAN: This year's meeting is for the first time, really looking a lot at global forces. Things like climate change. And that's because in 1997 and '98 we saw the biggest El Nino on record and a huge wave of coral bleaching and coral die-off affecting corals all around the world.

CURWOOD: What is coral bleaching?

RYAN: Coral bleaching is what happens when corals and algae they live together with get stressed out. Corals tend to spit out the algae and the algae is what gives color to the coral reefs. And once they're spit out, the corals turn white. And algae are what provide food for corals. And when they're spit out, well, the corals are starving. If the stress that causes them to spit out the algae doesn't stop, well, then they'll die. And we saw a lot of reefs bleaching and some of them dying in '98, more than we have ever seen in the past.

CURWOOD: What do the scientists there attribute all this coral bleaching to?

RYAN: There's some dispute about it. But the majority of scientists here are pretty convinced that coral bleaching is one of the first signs of global climate change. Corals can only live in a certain temperature range, just like you or me. And in '97 and '98 we saw some of the warmest water temperatures on record. And a lot of the corals responded by bleaching.

CURWOOD: I have to ask: Why hold this major conference on coral reefs in Bali? Of course, there is the advantage of being in this beautiful place on a beautiful beach. But why?

RYAN: It is a beautiful place, and the conference is at this very swank beachfront resort. So there's some irony there, and actually it's kind of surreal, I guess, to have these conversations about community-based conservation of coral reefs in very poor nations when we're at a conference for -- I don't think anybody from an Indonesian community could actually afford to be here. But why Bali? Well, Bali is in the heart of Indonesia, and Indonesia is really the heart of the world's ocean life. It's the country with more species than any other in earth, in terms of underwater things. And it's just kind of ground zero for underwater diversity and for its destruction.

CURWOOD: Scientists hold meetings and conferences all the time. But will this conference have any impact, any benefits for coral reefs after the talking is over?

RYAN: Well, it's definitely had some impacts already, maybe not anticipated. But here is an example. Bali in Indonesia is the heart of the sea turtle trade. Lots of sea turtles that are hunted from coral reefs all around the country are brought here for consumption. Amazingly enough, just up the road from here you can buy sea turtle shish kebabs from street vendors. But Bali's government, just before the meeting started, they arrested one of the kingpins of the sea turtle trade in Bali. It was actually the first arrest ever. And apparently it's because they wanted to clean up their image a bit before all these biologists from around the world came in and descended on their little island. So that's one good effect. But on the flip side, there is a really fascinating case of how, in Komodo National Park, which is famous for the dragons, of course, but they also have some of the best scuba diving, some of the best coral reefs anywhere, there's been just a huge outbreak of fish bombing in the past week. There's been about 20 blasts reported, each of which, when a fisherman throws a bomb onto a reef, they take out a chunk of reef about the size of a car with their blast. And this blasting has been because the local fish bombers, they know the authorities are out of town here at this meeting. So they're having a field day right now.

CURWOOD: And they bomb the coral reef to do what?

RYAN: They throw their little homemade bombs to explode on the reef. And the fish that are within the explosion zone, they get stunned or killed and they float to the surface. It's a very quick and easy way to catch a lot of fish fast. But unfortunately, it totally destroys the reef around it.

CURWOOD: And those are hardly the only bombs that are being used in Indonesia these days. There have of course been a number of incidents that have been in the news. Do scientists really expect a nation that's having so much political turmoil to be able to focus on the question of protecting coral reefs and fish?

RYAN: Well, the political problems definitely take first priority here. But it's not like coral reefs are some kind of beautiful luxury item for foreign tourists. They're really something that Indonesians depend on. Fish is the most common source of protein here, and coral reefs also protect lots of coastline. So, human welfare here does depend on keeping coral reefs in good shape. And lots of local communities are very aware of this. They're working very hard to protect these reefs. And attention from the outside world of these scientists and others that have been here can really, I think, only help the efforts of a lot of these local people to try to protect these really important ecosystems.

CURWOOD: John Ryan, thanks for taking this time with us today.

RYAN: My pleasure, Steve.

CURWOOD: John Ryan is a reporter based in Seattle and author of Seven Wonders: Everyday Things for a Healthier Planet.



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