COVID-19 – What’s at Stake for Maine: One Virus Two Possible Outcomes

The current piecemeal, a la carte, wait-and-see approach to COVID-19 I’m seeing in my community and in Maine in general appears to be inconsistent with what we should have learned from the data.

As a mountaineer, I can’t count the number of times I backed off a climb in the Rockies because of the threat of a thunderstorm. Depending on the orientation of the mountain, a thunderstorm can be on top of you with little warning, and so most mountaineers take precautionary measures to make sure they’re headed down before the afternoon thunderheads, even if they have not seen them yet. Mountaineers who ignore the possibility of an afternoon thunderstorm (something that is very well represented in the weather data) may find themselves in a panic as a cobalt sky is suddenly eclipsed by a dark anvil shaped cloud. Summit fever has put me there a couple times, and it’s terrifying as the wind picks up, the hair of your beard stands on end, and, in the most terrifying of cases, your rack of metal climbing gear begins to hum and then glow. COVID-19 is like a really bad thunderstorm, and it’s increasingly feeling to me like we didn’t start down the mountain in time.

While I’m a science writer by profession, the science surrounding COVID-19 is not in my wheelhouse or on my beat unless we’re talking about how it affects the Maine lobster fishery (and it is affecting the Maine lobster fishery!). Having said that, I am concerned about COVID-19 and, more important, our collective response to it. While I would not characterize my concern as fear–and I do not believe what I’m about to write is fear mongering–I’m very concerned we’re not acting based on the best available data, and if you know anything about me, you know I think the data matter.

Although COVID-19 may not be my beat as a journalist, data certainly are a big part of my daily work flow. Looking at the data, it appears clear to me that the best thing we could be doing right now for our families, communities (mine is Rockland, Maine) and nation as a whole is to be all-in when it comes to social distancing. The current piecemeal, a la carte, wait-and-see approach I’m seeing in my community and in Maine in general appears to be inconsistent with what we should have learned from the data.

What would an all-in approach to social distancing look like? In my opinion, the time to close schools, museums, theaters, gyms, and the like has long since past. It’s long past the time to cancel all sporting events, trade shows and any other large gatherings. Everyone who can work from home should be working from home. Any essential commercial activity that must continue should be carried out only with protective measures in place (e.g., there should be sufficient space for people to maintain at least two meters distance between themselves and others). Restaurants that can provide effective distance between diners ought to adopt limited hours to focus only on their essential function and then close early. Businesses that remain open should implement and publicize protocols for effectively sanitizing public spaces. This is not a comprehensive list, and I am not a public health expert, but these are the sort of steps that seem obvious to me based on the data.

I know these measures may sound extreme, but consider the alternative….and the point I really want to drive home here is that considering the alternative doesn’t need to be a theoretical exercise based on some model of a hypothetical situation. Instead, we can actually look directly at the data available from places that are a couple weeks or months ahead of us insofar as the spread of COVID-19 is concerned. Many of those places did things (and are doing things) we have not done, and we can learn from those actions and the results of those actions as they manifest themselves in the data.

While people have been seriously talking about coronavirus in Maine since at least early February, the public discussion about altering behavior didn’t really ratchet up until early March. On 5 March, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC) announced that “testing for the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) at the state’s Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory is expected to begin in the next several days.” Further, Maine CDC said they would inform the public if positive tests are confirmed, and they said that the number of positive test results would be posted to Maine CDC’s coronavirus webpage. This was forty-five days after the first known coronavirus case was announced in the United States.

On 10 March, Maine CDC began daily reporting, and we learned that less than 30 people had been tested for COVID-19 and none had tested positive. The population of Maine is in the neighborhood of 1,345,000.

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By 11 March, 47 people had been tested and there were still no positive test results.

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On the 12th of March, the first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 in Maine was announced by Maine CDC after a total of 85 people were tested. By the following day, 13 March, there were three presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Maine with a total of 108 people people tested statewide. NOTE: A presumptive positive result is when a patient tests positive at a state, reference, or commercial laboratory but results are pending confirmation at US CDC.

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How does Maine compare to the Nation as a whole? As of today, the US CDC is reporting 1,629 cases nationwide (in 46 states and the District of Columbia). US CDC is reporting 41 deaths.**

Put another way, according to Maine CDC data, 0.0002229 percent of Maine’s population has tested positive for COVID-19 compared to 0.0004936 percent of the US population as a whole. Wow! Those are pretty small numbers. All things being equal, I think many of us would take those odds. Consider, for example, that we have around an 8 percent chance of being struck by lightning in the US and yet we really don’t alter our behavior that much to avoid a lighting strike, do we? So why should we alter our behavior for a 0.0002229 chance of becoming infected with a virus that probably won’t even kill most of us?

I have two answers: 1) Only about 0.008 percent of the population of Maine has been tested to date, and 2) Most of us actually do alter our lives to avoid being struck by lightning, but the actions we take are so intuitive and ingrained–such common sense–that we hardly even notice them–so much so that we think we aren’t even taking them.

On the first point, the exceptionally low testing rate has given us a false sense of security. The lack of positive tests in the State and in individual communities is always the first argument for why this school has not closed or this event is still happening. This low testing rate insures, however, that there were most certainly cases of COVID-19 in Maine before CDC reported the first positive test on the 12th of March. In addition, we need to consider that the best available data show that the number of secondary infections generated from one infected individual (the transmission or reproductive rate) is somewhere between two and three for the coronavirus. So every non-isolated infected person has potentially infected two or three other people who in turn may now have infected four or six more people.

“But wait,” you say, “we got the word out early and people have been great about staying home if they have symptoms.” While that’s debatable, keep in mind that, unlike influenza, the coronavirus can be transmitted before any symptoms appear. In fact, the data show the probability of a transmission event happening before the infected individual becomes symptomatic (much the less tests positive) is 26 percent. Finally, in addition to direct human-to-human transmission, the data show this virus “can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to 9 days.” At least one study has also shown that the virus can live in the air “up to three hours post aerosolization.”

In short, we are long past using the number of positive tests for COVID-19 as our guide for whether or not we should implement mitigation strategies like social distancing.

On the second point about the relative risk of being struck by lightning, one of the reasons we have almost cut the fatality rate of lighting strikes in half in the last decade is surely because we understand the data and we respond appropriately to it. In the same way that not standing in the middle of a field during a lightning storm is obvious based on lightning strike data and our understanding of how lighting works, social distancing is clearly the common sense move in the face of COVID-19. I fully understand that mitigation of COVID-19 through the type of social distancing I outlined above is certainly a big ask, but COVID-19 is not a lightning storm. Nor is it influenza, a common cold or a hoax. All the credible data with which I’m familiar show COVID-19 is here, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 3.33.42 PMEven if we implement the most austere social distancing possible, there is no evidence to suggest it would stop COVID-19 in its tracks. Actually the data show that it wouldn’t. What it can do is buy us time, and that’s what we need right now (this is what you’ve heard referred to as “flattening the curve”).  Why do we need time? To be blunt, I’ll borrow population health and health policy expert Dr. Drew Harris’s words: “It’s the difference between finding an ICU bed & ventilator or being treated in the parking lot tent.”

For too long, we here in Maine listened to the news and looked at those maps showing Maine as one of the handful of states with no confirmed cases of COVID-19. We forgot perhaps that Portland is under two hours by car from Boston, which is home to an international airport that sees more then 50.5 million passengers per year. COVID-19 was scary but in the same way news of foreign wars is scary. We’re not, after all, Washington or California or even Massachusetts. By the time the first Maine case of COVID-19 was reported by Maine CDC, we were already in the grips of a declared global pandemic, and we didn’t even know it. We were already past the point of having the conversations we are having now–conversations like should we close k-12 schools. Conversations like should we close museums and theaters, especially as we have the oldest population in the nation with almost 20 percent being 65 or older.


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The map shows the known locations of coronavirus cases by county. Circles are sized by the number of people there who have tested positive, which may differ from where they contracted the illness. Some people who traveled overseas were taken for treatment in California, Nebraska and Texas. Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories are not shown. Sources: State and local health agencies, hospitals, C.D.C. Data as of 12:19 p.m. E.T., Mar. 14. (Source: New York Times)














We are at a point where every day we don’t act matters. When we look at how COVID-19 has behaved in other countries, we can see what to expect. When we look at other nations’ response times and outcomes, we can clearly see what has worked and what hasn’t. When we look at historical analogs like the Spanish Flu, we also can glean the same information.

So what works? I’ll leave you for now with a great chart from Tomas Pueyo’s article for Medium titled “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now.” This is one of the best articles I’ve read on the subject, and it is certainly the one that cemented my current belief in calling for all-in social distancing.

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As Pueyo writes of the above chart, “This theoretical model shows different communities: one doesn’t take social distancing measures, one takes them on Day n of an outbreak, the other one on Day n+1. All the numbers are completely fictitious (I chose them to resemble what happened in Hubei, with ~6k daily new cases at the worst). They’re just there to illustrate how important a single day can be in something that grows exponentially. You can see that the one-day delay peaks later and higher, but then daily cases converge to zero.”

The time for debating what we are going to do is over. We know the thunderstorm is cresting the summit. We’re going to get rained on and we might even hear some distant thunder rumbling, but we can still decide to mitigate the risk. We can still decide to be prudent and begin a systematic descent immediately with no lingering thoughts of standing on the peak. This isn’t about panicking. It’s about being prudent.

We have the data, and the data matter.

**The New York Times has updated their numbers twice since I started drafting this piece. Almost 100 new cases were reported in the time it took me to write this piece:

As of Saturday afternoon, at least 2,345 people in 49 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have tested positive for coronavirus in the United States, according to a New York Times database, and at least 50 patients with the virus have died.

As of Saturday afternoon, at least 2,443 people in 49 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have tested positive for coronavirus in the United States, according to a New York Times database, and at least 50 patients with the virus have died.

Thank you to Richard Ross and Andrew Rhyne for your pre-press comments.


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Summer’s Not Over!

coralThank you to all of you who have written notes to see if I’m okay. I am, and I know I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for a couple months.

Summer is a time when my writing productivity usually drops off as a result of keeping up with the farm, hosting houseguests and helping my wife with the Karen Talbot Art Gallery (we’re open weekends until at least the third weekend in October). While I have not published much this summer, I have been hard at work on several big projects, which I look forward to announcing soon.


In the interim, if you’re in Rockland, Maine, consider checking out the joint show I currently have up at the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center. The show features some of my photography (including a large print of the above coral image) along side the scientific illustrations of the immensely talented Karen Talbot. I’ll also be giving a talk in late October at the visitor center about coral, so stay tuned for that.

Until then, you can find Karen and me either pressing apples here at Three Bird Farm or eDNA sampling for embattled Arctic char in northern Maine.


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Maine is Running Out of Lobster Bait. Is Farmed Salmon the Answer?

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The following is an excerpt from my most recent piece in National Geographic. Click here to read the full story.

ROCKLAND, MAINE – People love lobster. For some, it’s nostalgic, eliciting memories of bygone days and summers in Maine. For others, it’s a celebratory meal reserved for special occasions. From whole lobster or tail to a lobster roll or bisque—from Panera, McDonald’s, and Red Lobster to the finest white-tablecloth restaurant, lobster is an iconic American food. And waitstaff and apps tell diners that Maine lobster is thriving—it’s a sustainable fishery certified by the Marine Stewardship Council—so they can feel good about what’s on their plates.

The bait used to catch lobster, however, is less on people’s minds. But it’s unavoidable when talking to Maine’s lobstermen these days.

Genevieve McDonald fishes out of Maine’s largest lobster port aboard the F/V Hello Darlings II. Last November, she became Maine’s first female commercial fisherman (“fisherman” and “lobsterman” are the strongly preferred terms for both women and men in the industry, she says) elected to the Maine House of Representatives, representing a district that includes Maine’s two biggest lobster ports. Not surprisingly, McDonald ran on a platform many in the fishing industry support. But above all else, one issue stood out.

“Our biggest issue is the bait crisis,” she said in November, regarding a newly imposed 70 percent catch limit cut for herring, the most popular lobster bait. “I can’t get the herring quota back,” she said, “but I want to try to see about other… [CONTINUE READING]

Posted in Aquaculture, Fishing Industry, Lobster Fishery, Maine Fisheries, Northeast Fisheries | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Seafood Expo North America 2019

Today is the first day of Seafood Expo North America 2019 (SENA19), and I’m headed to Boston for the show. For those of you unfamiliar with the event, it is largest seafood exposition in North America with thousands of buyers and suppliers from around the world. There is also a conference program that features more than 25 educational sessions, presented by seafood industry thought leaders and experts from many segments of the seafood industry.

As a freelance journalist, I cover this event annually, as it’s a great opportunity to meet face-to-face with some of the sources with whom I work throughout the year. It’s also a great opportunity to keep up with trends in the seafood industry.

If you’ve followed my coverage of previous shows, you know that I’m often interested in the relationship between what is being discussed on the floor of the show where all the exhibitors are and what is being discussed in the conference sessions. As a journalist who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability, I’ve found it fascinating to look at how the concept of sustainability has been presented at SENA over the years. From the days when one didn’t see the word “sustainable” on the floor at all, to more recently when it seemed like every exhibitor had sustainability claims front-and-center, it’s illustrative to observe how the conference discussion tends to lead the marketing efforts.

In more recent years, the conference discussion has focused quite a bit on how the ubiquitousness of the word “sustainable” in the seafood industry has led to it meaning less and less. When companies start claiming “100% sustainable,” for example, it’s clear that we are no longer focused on a journey toward greater sustainability–and sustainability must always be a journey, never a destination.

This year at SENA19, I’m going to be taking a closer look at fishery improvement projects (FIPs) within the context of true sustainability. FIPs emerged in recent years as a tool for incentivizing fisheries to progress along the path to greater sustainability. With the advent of third-party certification, verification and advisory schemes (e.g., MSC, Seafood Watch) it became clear that the seafood industry needed a way to identify fisheries that had not attained an ecolabel but were still on the right path. In part, this was a direct result of market forces–like when Wal-Mart announced they would offer only Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) seafood to US consumers. There was simply not enough supply, so they had to expand the definition of what sustainable meant to them.

The emergence of FIPs as a sustainability tool was also, however, about insuring that fisheries had incentive to improve rather than simply being marginalized. As I wrote in 2015 while covering SENA, sustainability must never become a club.

The leaders of the seafood industry need to avoid wearing sustainability blinders. Yes, we need to shine a light on those who are doing it well insofar as sustainability is concerned, but, more importantly, we must not allow those in our periphery vision to fall out of focus. Reward those who have worked hard to achieve certification, but also engage with those who have not. Certification is a tool; use it as such.

FIPs are a great way to engage those fisheries that have not achieved certification or been green-lighted by an advisory scheme, and the success of many FIPs is well documented. Having said that, FIPs are also vulnerable to many of the same issues as sustainability initiatives. Some point again to the example of Wal-Mart: When they were unable to meet their stated seafood sustainability goals, they shifted to also including FIPs. When sourcing remained problematic, the bar on which FIPs passed muster shifted.

Others point out that FIPs often unevenly distribute the costs and benefits of improvement. In many so-called successful FIP models, fishers end up paying the lion’s share of the cost but don’t readily see the benefits. Because sustainability is increasingly seen as including not only environmental sustainability but also socio-economic sustainability, this shortcoming in the traditional FIP model is one that needs to be addressed.

With this interest in FIPs at the forefront of my mind as I head to SENA19, I’m excited to attend a panel discussion later today titled “Triple Impact FIPs: Finding and Capturing Value to Accelerate Fisheries Improvement.” The presenters claim that “FIPs may be achieving environmental improvement but at great social cost to fishers, those who in globalized supply chains are least capable of paying for improvement.” During the presentation, they will be discussing a revision to the FIP model that can “evaluate, track and incentivize improvement of fisheries’ social and financial performance along with their environmental performance.”

If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @RetTalbot.


Posted in CITES, Fishery Improvement Projects (FIP), Fishing Industry, Marine Stewardship Council | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Free Science Writing Workshop

sciencewriting-logo500-e1549394996102As part of the 2019 Maine Science Festival, I will be teaching a Science Writing 101 Workshop on Saturday (16 March) from 11:30 to 1:30 in Bangor, Maine.

Many scientists find it challenging and time-consuming to communicate in clear, simple terms with the average reader, while many journalists don’t have the time or interest to fully understand difficult scientific concepts well enough to report a science story in a general interest publication. We live in a time where data do matter and keeping science accessible and in the public eye is essential. In this workshop, I’ll lead participants through the process of reporting out a science story in a way that is both clear and compelling.

The workshop will be in Meeting Room D at the Cross Insurance Center at 515 Main Street in Bangor. Space is limited to 15 participants, and sign-up is required prior to the event.

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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.


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.”


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.”


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.

paul chin gc doe biologist salvaging disease pillar coral

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.


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

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.


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.

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.

Posted in Invasive Species | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment