Cayman Islands Journalist on Front Line of Coral Reef Health

 

joe-avaryJoe Avary is a reporter with with Cayman 27 in the Cayman Islands, and we’ve been in touch since my Yale Environment 360 story that mentioned coral disease at a popular Grand Cayman dive site published earlier this month.

Last week Joe reported out the story of coral disease at Killer Pillar in a segment for Cayman 27, and I followed up with him to learn a little more about his experience covering coral reefs in the Cayman Islands as both a journalist and a diver.

As a journalist in the Cayman Islands I have covered numerous stories on the health of our coral reefs. They’re among the most beautiful and healthy in the region and economically important as a draw for tourists.

I am also a diver, and I feel that is definitely an advantage when covering marine issues. My coverage of reef damage incidents–like the Carnival Magic anchor incident in August 2014 and the subsequent volunteer reef restoration, and late billionaire Paul Allen’s mega-yacht ‘Tatoosh’ anchor damage incident in January 2016–helped ensure these entities were held accountable through the courts, or at least shamed into contributing to the restoration efforts monetarily. Taking my camera underwater to document these things brings the reef home to those who don’t dive or snorkel and it makes it real to them.

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As far as the disease stories go, these maybe get less attention than the big reef damage stories I mentioned before. But I think it’s still important from an environmental perspective because not only are reefs beautiful and a big tourism draw, they actually factor in safeguarding against impacts of hurricanes and major storms. I keep my ear to the ground and if I can highlight any sort of issue in the coral world, I go all in to bring them to the cayman 27 audience.

You can follow Joe on Twitter @345joey.

If you missed it, I followed up my Yale E360 story with a deeper dive into the Killer Pillar disease outbreak story  with the help of Tammi Warrender, a visiting scientist who has been diving with the Department of Environment (DOE) in the Cayman Islands since 2013.

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Saving Grand Cayman’s Killer Pillar

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I recently published a story about coral disease in Yale Environment 360, and I’ve had a lot of follow-up through social media. One of the top questions/comments I’ve received concerns Killer Pillar, a Grand Cayman dive site mentioned in the article. I wanted to take a moment here and give folks a little more detail based on my discussion with Tammi Warrender, the individual I mentioned in the story who reported the disease at Killer Pillar to Dr. William Precht.

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Killer Pillar is a popular dive site located in the Seven Mile Beach Marine Park on the west coast of Grand Cayman. According to Warrender, who is a visiting scientist and has been diving with the Department of Environment (DOE) in the Cayman Islands since 2013, it the busiest area for dive tourism in Grand Cayman. It is also, she told me, the only known site on the west coast of Grand Cayman where pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus) can be found.

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The Killer Pillar dive site is located off Grand Caymen and marked here in Google Earth.

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A juvenile threespot damselfish nestled in a pillar coral colony in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. (c) NOAA

For those of you who have never seen a pillar coral colony, it is truly a spectacular thing to behold. Rising up in majestic, cylindrical columns from the bottom, the namesake pillars can reach two to three meters in height, dwarfing the surrounding coralscape. Grey-brown in color, filtered sunlight paints the pillars a golden hue, accentuating the animal’s uncharacteristic hair-like texture. These “hairs” are actually the individual coral polyps feeding, an unusual sight for many divers, as most corals feed largely at night.

While never the dominant species in the western Atlantic, pillar corals find themselves in an ever more precarious situation. Now listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, pillar corals became a focus of scientists responding to the 2014 disease outbreak in Florida. A monitoring program that stretched along the Florida Reef Tract from central Miami-Dade County to southern Palm Beach County tracked 65 individual colonies. Despite some efforts to mitigate the ravages of the disease, within three years, all but one of those 65 colonies had turned from a vibrant focal point of reef life to a ghost white skeleton soon overgrown with algae. Today, it’s estimated that 96 to 99 percent of Florida’s pillar corals have been lost to disease earning the few surviving colonies the epitaph “the last unicorns.”

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A pillar coral colony (c) NOAA

Within this context, the discovery of disease at the Killer Pillar dive site off Grand Cayman in June of 2018 raised serious alarm bells for Warrender. She says she’s always observed some degree of coral disease on Cayman Island reefs since she started diving with DOE some eight years ago, but now she’s seeing more. “Unfortunately, this is the common trend around the world, and coral disease outbreaks are becoming more frequent, severe, and widespread.”

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Tammi Warrender working on the diseased Killer Pillar (c) Tammi Warrender

The disease at Killer Pillar was reported to DOE by a local dive company called Cayman Ecodivers. “The disease outbreak at Killer Pillar was already well underway,” Warrender recalls, “and several colonies were highly infected by the disease.” Given that other pillar coral colonies in the Cayman Islands were also showing signs of disease, she was thinking worst case scenario: local extinction.

Warrender led the disease intervention effort, working with individuals from the DOE Research Unit, Operations Unit, and other external associates such as Precht, Cayman Ecodivers and Dr. Karen Neely (who was also featured in the Yale E360 story). “It was a challenging project using several intervention methods, some of which have never been tried before on this specific species,” says Warrender. “I was very driven to carry out this research, knowing that if we did not intervene, it is highly likely that entire pillar colonies, hundreds of years old, would die.”

As I described in the Yale E360 article, Warrender and her team salvaged healthy parts of colonies by sawing them off and transplanting them on other reefs. They used chlorinated epoxy to try to stop the spread of the disease, and they treated healthy tissue fragments with a povidone iodine and seawater solution before moving them to a nursery in hopes of preserving them.

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DOE’s Paul Chin salvaging healthy coral from the Killer Pillar Dive Site (c) William Precht

“So far some of our methods have been successful,” she says, “but only time will tell whether our treatments and the pillar coral colonies at Killer Pillar will survive this outbreak.” She says research officers at DOE are continuing to monitor the results of the experiments. Recently Warrender et al. published preliminary results of the experiment at a poster session presented at Reef Futures 2018 (see below).

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“The best thing about this experience was working together with other coral disease researchers to figure out solutions to save this charismatic and rare species,” Warrender says. “This research gives hope that we can assist the survival of corals, which are highly infected by disease, however, our interventions are only buying time for the corals–we are treating the symptoms, not the underlying cause. These interventions should be used only in conjunction with large scale efforts to minimize our environmental impact and reducing carbon emissions.”

The effort to save Killer Pillar, like the effort Neely discusses in the Yale E360 article to save the last remaining high-density stand of pillar coral in the Florida Keys, may seem futile to some. In fact, I received a lot of feedback from readers of the article who expressed concern about overly-hyped optimism in the media regarding these types of interventions. Critical readers worried these interventions are experimental, expensive and not scalable. In many ways, I agree with those criticisms, but I think we must talk about context. If the goal is “Save the Reefs,” then I think we need to be having a very different conversation than the one which continually (and optimistically) profiles high-tech, experimental interventions. But if we’re talking about saving a reef or a legacy coral colony then these interventions–the efforts by scientists like Wallender–should be front-and-center.

The oceans are warming and annual severe bleaching events may increasingly occur. Coral diseases are reported with more frequency and over a broader area, and, in places like Florida, the anthropogenic stressors are not going away anytime soon. We likely can’t save the reefs–we likely can’t even return them to a severely shifted baseline–but perhaps we can create “systems in waiting.” These systems in waiting, beyond the importance of being a genetic repository of biodiversity, may be the tools that help inspire future generations to develop the political will and scientific interventions to return the oceans to a state where coral reefs will once again thrive.

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Tammi Warrender at Killer Pillar (c) Tammi Warrender

To learn about scientists working to save the last remaining high-density stand of pillar coral on the Florida Reef Tract, read my full article “As Disease Ravages Coral Reefs, Scientists Scramble for Solutions” in Yale E360.  You can follow Tammi Warrender on Instagram at @coralreefwarrior.

Posted in coral, Endangered Species Act (ESA), Forida, Global Climate Change, Southeast Fisheries | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

As Disease Ravages Coral Reefs, Scientists Scramble for Solutions (Excerpt from Yale E360)

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The following is an excerpt of my article on climate disease fromYale Environment 360. Click “CONTINUE” at the end of the excerpts to read the full article at https://e360.yale.edu.

In September 2014, William Precht received an alarming phone call. “I’m seeing something funky out on the reef,” a colleague reported. “It looks like disease.” At the time, Precht, a marine biologist and environmental consultant working in coral reef restoration, had been monitoring a Port of Miami dredging project to ensure preservation of the nearby ecosystem. When Precht donned his scuba gear and dove to the site to investigate a few weeks later he couldn’t believe what he found. “The whole reef was lit up in disease,” he recounts. There were more than 30 coral colonies (each 4 to 16 inches across) with white bands and lines on them, and other corals were entirely white. “You could see this line of mortality moving across the reef — I was blown away.”

Precht was witnessing the early signs of a new and rapidly spreading coral disease outbreak sweeping along the Florida coastline, threatening the third-largest reef ecosystem in the world. The outbreak first appeared in pockets of diseased coral near Miami. Four years later, it covers 96,000 acres of reef extending about 275 miles from West Palm Beach to the lower Florida Keys. By some estimates, as much as 35 percent of the coral population has been lost. Several species have nearly vanished, including majestic colonies of pillar corals (Dendrogyra cylindrus), a threatened species that can reach heights from 6 to nearly 10 feet. The few surviving colonies are…[CONTINUE]

 

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‘Holy Grail’ Test for Illegal Cyanide-Caught Aquarium Fish May Be Fatally Flawed [Excerpt from NatGeo]

This is an excerpt from my latest article in National Geographic.

A widely celebrated test believed to be able to determine if tropical marine aquarium fish were caught illegally using cyanide may be based on problematic data, a new study says.

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Blue tangs are popular saltwater aquarium fish that until recently couldn’t be bred in captivity. It’s believed many of them are caught using cyanide to stun them.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM LAMAN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

KOMANG SWERVES TO miss a pothole and then to avoid an oncoming bemo, the ubiquitous minibuses providing public transportation throughout Indonesia. He turns off the main road onto a sandy track. Large leaves slap against the truck’s rusted sides, as bags of reef fish slosh in the back. Ahead, through an insect-splattered windshield, chickens and children scuttle in a cacophony of squawks and laughter until the lushness gives way to a cobble beach with a fishing village huddled against dark hills in the distance. Komang pulls up near a small building. A man leans against an overturned dory surrounded by the detritus of his livelihood—nets, a boat beyond repair, a rusted engine block.

He leads Komang to a concrete pool filled with seawater. A fish darts into the open, gills gaping. Komang nods. There’s a brief negotiation, then the man nets and bags the fish and hands it over.

Komang returns to the truck, placing the fish in the back with the others. He starts to slide in behind the wheel but stops, as if he forgot something. Komang removes a plastic bag containing several small tablets from his pocket and hands it to the fisherman.

The scene repeats that day at fishing villages along the northwest coast of Bali. Komang is a middleman. He buys fish from fishermen and drives them back over the island to Denpasar, where he sells them to exporters at a profit. For those concerned about illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, the middleman system in Indonesia is a roadblock to sustainability. It often removes traceability from the supply chain, as provenance is lost by the time the fish reach the exporter.

There’s also a more insidious concern: Those tablets Komang handed out are potassium cyanide. Combined with seawater in a squirt bottle, they’re used to paralyze fish, making them easier to catch.

It is estimated that during the past half century more than 2.2 million pounds of cyanide were illegally used on Philippine coral reefs to exploit fish for the aquarium and… [Continue Reading in National Geographic]

Posted in Developing Nations, Indo-Pacific, IUU Fishing, Ornamental Fisheries | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beyond Data Podcast in the News

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Thanks to the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station Office of Communications and Marketing for directing folks to my podcast episode Brown Trout – Beloved Invader that looked at invasive species through the lens of one of world’s most popular freshwater game species. In the episode,  Julie Lockwood provides broader context on invasion ecology as well as her take on how to conserve natural ecosystems within an era of massive global change.

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Chefs on Seafood, Changing Menus & Trust – A Special Report from Seafood Expo North America 2018

Click here or on the play button below to listen to a special episode of Beyond Data reporting on the 2018 Seafood Expo North America.

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In this episode, we focus on chefs as change agents in the seafood industry. Forward-thinking chefs who are thought leaders in the seafood space, are always trying to figure out how to create demand for lesser-known species that are both delicious and seasonably abundant. Can these chefs drive industry change, and if so, how? Chef Evan Mallett moderates a panel on this topic with top New England chefs and a supplier.

Panal Participants

Evan Mallett, Black Trumpet and Ondine Oyster & Wine Bar

Jeremy Sewall, Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34

Derek Wagner, Nicks on Broadway

Jared Auerbach, Red’s Best

Justin Boevers, Fish Choice

Part I [00:00] Intro

Seafood Expo North America

Part II [02:15] The Discussion

Top Seafood Species

FishPeople Seafood

“What about the ‘S’ Word?” by Ret Talbot

This was a 75-minute panel discussion, so today’s 20-minute episode is just a small slice of what was discussed. Stay tuned for more from this session in future episodes.

Posted in Beyond Data Podcast, Chef's Collaborative, Maine Fisheries, Northeast Fisheries | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Special Episode of Beyond Data Podcast Released – Resiliency in Maine’s Lobster Fishery & More

20180302_125300This special episode of the Beyond Data Podcast is reported from the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, which recently wrapped up here in Midcoast Maine.

In this episode, we hear from Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner Patrick Keliher on resiliency in the State’s most valuable fishery. We also explore a case of mistaken science versus fishing industry, and we touch on the single biggest issue facing Maine’s working waterfronts over the next few years: right whale entanglements.

This coming weekend, the Beyond Data Podcast will be headed to Seafood Expo North America, so stay tuned for live tweets from that event, as well as additional special episodes of the podcast.

Beyond Data is reported, narrated and produced by me, Ret Talbot, in Rockland, Maine. If you enjoyed the podcast, please tell a friend about it, and consider subscribing on Apple Podcasts where you can also help out the show by rating it and giving us a review. That really does make a difference!

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