Threats facing South Florida’s coral reefs and possible solutions

By Molly Rickles, SRC intern

Coral reefs are dynamic ecosystems that harbor a quarter of all marine species while only occupying 0.2% of the world’s oceans (Chen, 2015). Coral Reefs are critical to the ocean’s health because of their biodiversity and complex ecosystems. However, climate change and anthropogenic disturbances has had a profound effect on coral reefs worldwide, with many reefs losing over 50% of their coral cover in the last 40 years (Baker, 2014). This is due largely to coral bleaching, a stress response induced by higher temperatures and excess nutrients. Bleaching is episodic, and the most severe events are coupled ocean-atmosphere events (CITE). Increased sea surface temperature causes coral cover to decrease when the temperature is higher than 26.85 degrees Celsius (Chen, 2015). Coral bleaching causes an increase in coral diseases as well as loss of habitat for many marine species. This eventually leads to a decrease in coral cover, which can disrupt the marine ecosystem and negatively impact the environment.

This map shows the location of South Florida’s reef system, which travels all the way down into the Florida Keys. The second image shows Dry Tortugas National Park, TNER is Tortugas North Ecological Reserve, TSER is Tortugas South Ecological Reserve, TBO is Tortugas Bank Open and DRTO is Dry Tortugas National Park. (Ault, 2013)

This map shows the location of South Florida’s reef system, which travels all the way down into the Florida Keys. The second image shows Dry Tortugas National Park, TNER is Tortugas North Ecological Reserve, TSER is Tortugas South Ecological Reserve, TBO is Tortugas Bank Open and DRTO is Dry Tortugas National Park. (Ault, 2013)

In addition to coral reefs being ecologically important, they are also economically important. Reefs generate $29.8 billion in global net benefit per year (Chen, 2015). Climate change has caused a decrease in ecotourism, resulting in a decrease in profits from coral reefs. It is estimated that the lost value in terms of global coral reef value could range from $3.95-23.78 billion annually (Chen, 2015). In order for many coastal areas to retain this profit from the reefs, corals must be protected from the harmful effects of climate change.

Florida’s coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, due to the high population concentration around the coast and the large amount of pollution in coastal waters. Since 1960, Florida’s population has increased by 379% (Ault, 2013). In addition, Southeast Florida is the 8th most densely populated area in the US (Futch, 2011). Increased population leads to increased pollution and runoff, which can be harmful to reef systems. In addition, large infrastructure projects, pipe systems, and beach nourishment can contribute to stresses on corals, all which occur in Florida. The Florida reef system supports the tourism and fishing industries, making it commercially valuable. Without the reef system, Florida would lose two of its largest income generating industries. It is necessary to implant policies that will protect Florida’s reefs from future destruction in order to support the tourism industry as well as to protect the ecosystem.

Another threat facing South Florida’s reefs is from sewage and waste runoff. Due to an increased population, the increased amount of sewage produced is something that the septic systems are not always prepared for. This leads to excess runoff. Water, sponge and coral samples were collected off of the Southeast Florida reef tract and noroviruses were detected in 31% of samples (Futch, 2011). Runoff is particularly dangerous because of wildlife contamination, which has already been observed, but also because excess nutrients in the water cause lead to algal blooms, which can then cause coral bleaching events (Futch, 2011).

This image show various types of corals as they were placed on reefs in South Florida to test the ability of the reef to recruit new corals to add to its growth. (Woesik, 2014)

This image show various types of corals as they were placed on reefs in South Florida to test the ability of the reef to recruit new corals to add to its growth. (Woesik, 2014)

Through the use of monitoring systems all throughout South Florida and the Florida Keys, it has been determined that there has been a 44% decline in coral cover since 1996. This shows that there is a dire need to protect Florida’s reef systems. There are various strategies that have been tested to see what works to preserve coral reefs. Often times, management policies are most successful in dealing with marine ecosystems, since they are generally difficult to directly monitor. One such strategy is the use of a marine protected area (MPA). Marine protected areas are generally very successful, and reefs in MPA’s normally show an increase in size, adult abundance and occupancy rates among reef fish (Ault, 2013). This strategy is especially important in Florida because of the large fishing industry. Intensive fishing has diminished top trophic levels, which affects the entire ecosystem’s balance (Ault, 2013). With the main goal of protecting coral reefs, MPA’s also make the entire ecosystem healthier and prevent unsustainable fishing. Environmental policies that limit the number of fish taken from a reef or limit the boating activity in a certain area are very effective at limiting the human disturbances on coral reefs, and can help marine ecosystems recover from anthropogenic disturbances.

In addition, coral recruitment has been used to regrow portions of bleached reefs. This was done in the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas National Park. However, the results were not promising. Because of already present stressors such as pollution and warm temperatures, most of the corals did not survive once they were deployed on the reef. These results indicate that coral reefs have slow recovery times after bleaching events or environmental stressors (Woesik, 2014).

Coral reefs are vital to the health of the oceans. Without them, many marine species would be critically threatened. It is necessary to protect the reefs that are alive now to ensure their survival in the future. By implementing management policies, it is possible to protect the reefs from further anthropogenic disturbances, and allow them to recover from already-present stressors. If the health of coral reefs in South Florida increase, then Florida will not only benefit economically, but ecologically with improved marine ecosystems.

Works Cited

Ault, J. S., Smith, S. G., Bohnsack, J. A., Luo, J., Zurcher, N., Mcclellan, D. B., . . . Causey, B. (2013). Assessing coral reef fish population and community changes in response to marine reserves in the Dry Tortugas, Florida, USA. Fisheries Research, 144, 28-37. doi:10.1016/j.fishres.2012.10.007

Futch, J. C., Griffin, D. W., Banks, K., & Lipp, E. K. (2011). Evaluation of sewage source and fate on southeast Florida coastal reefs. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62(11), 2308-2316. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2011.08.046

Woesik, R. V., Scott, W. J., & Aronson, R. B. (2014). Lost opportunities: Coral recruitment does not translate to reef recovery in the Florida Keys. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 88(1-2), 110-117. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2014.09.017

Chen, P., Chen, C., Chu, L., & Mccarl, B. (2015). Evaluating the economic damage of climate change on global coral reefs. Global Environmental Change, 30, 12-20. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.10.011

Baker, A. C., Glynn, P. W., & Riegl, B. (2008). Climate change and coral reef bleaching: An ecological assessment of long-term impacts, recovery trends and future outlook. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, 80(4), 435-471. doi:10.1016/j.ecss.2008.09.003


FAD’s and Food Security in the Pacific Islands

By Kevin Reagan, SRC intern

In the countries and territories of the Pacific Islands, the people depend very heavily on fish for food. In Pacific Island countries and territories (PICT’s), 50-90% of the dietary animal protein in coastal communities comes from fish. This is based mostly on small-scale subsistence and commercial fishing for fish mainly associated with coral reefs, as well as some pelagic (open ocean) species (mainly tuna). Consumption of fish here is several times higher than the global average, and tuna is of particular importance and value (Bell et. al 2009).

A map of the Pacific Island region.

A map of the Pacific Island region.

As human populations grow, the government is encouraged to provide at least 35 kg of fish per person per year, due to the fact the fish is filled with fatty acids, proteins, and vitamins, and the most promising option for food security in the region. The arable, farmable land is scarce, which makes the level of subsistence provided from small farms scarce as well. It is also a better alternative to nutrient-poor imported foods that are beginning to be consumed in the region and can combat the occurrence of non-communicable diseases in the region (Bell et al. 2015).

The main issue currently is that coral reef fish populations cannot keep up with the growing demand for food, and will not yield the necessary 35 kg/person as the population continues to grow. Bell et. al (2015) propose that PICT’s allocate more of the tuna they catch to local food security, and make fish-aggregating devices (FAD’s) a priority. By 2035, it is estimate that tuna with need to account for 25% of the fish required for food security in the region (Bell et al. 2015).

A yellowfin tuna, the most common species of tuna caught in the Pacific Islands.

A yellowfin tuna, the most common species of tuna caught in the Pacific Islands.

FAD’s are though to be “one of the most practical vehicles for improving local fish access” in PICT’s (Bell et. al 2015), and are installed nearshore in depths of 300-700 meters. Pelagic fish tend to aggregate at and around floating objects for several days, and therefore FAD’s improve access to these fish. They have been shown to improve supply and consumption in rural areas, and cost-benefit analyses of FAD’s show the value of tuna and other pelagic fish exceeds the cost of the FAD by 3-7 times. The catch per unit effort tends to be higher, the average fuel consumption by the fisherman lower, and the returns on investment are anywhere form 80-180%. Preliminary studies in Micronesia and Vanuata indicate that FAD’s can alleviate fishing pressure on coral reef communities as much as 75% by transferring some of the fishing to oceanic fisheries, i.e. pelagic fish (Bell et al. 2015).

Though FAD’s have many benefits, extensive planning, monitoring, and research will be required for them all to be seen. An important aspect of this is participation and a sense of ownership by the local communities; some FAD’s have been sabotaged and vandalized in the past. Investments will need to be made, and are described in detail in the paper (Bell et al. 2015).

A fish-aggregating device (FAD) with mahi mahi schooling underneath.

A fish-aggregating device (FAD) with mahi mahi schooling underneath.

The first necessary investment is to identify priority locations for nearshore FAD’s. This is especially important in rural communities but is also important for urban communities. The community then needs to be engaged so that they can realize the full potential of FAD’s and none will be lost due to vandalism. The effectiveness of exclusion zones for industrial fleets must also be assisted; there are concerns that industrial fleets fishing near the boundaries of exclusion zones affect the number of fish that are then contained within the zone. Next, catches around nearshore FAD’s needs to be monitored and the level of improvement of coral reef management initiatives from FAD’s should be evaluated. Finally, the design and placement of the FAD’s must be improved (Bell et al. 2015).

FAD’s provide path to increase tuna and other pelagic fish availability to rural and urban comm. in Pacific Islands. They are a practical way to allow countries to get the small share of the region’s tuna catch they need to have food security, and are also a positive adaptation to climate change and population growth. Exclusion zone expansion needs to be considered as well if it is shown that industrial fleets are catching tuna marked in the exclusion zone (Bell et al. 2015).

Investments need to be made in FADs as part of food security in PICTs. Current FAD numbers not enough, and infrastructure needs to be maintained post-installation. Damaged FAD’s need to be replaced as soon as possible or momentum will be lost in the community. To do this, communities need large stockpiles of spare parts and access to the vessels and personnel necessary to install new FADs. However, current budgets are not large enough. National governments also need to be committed to and have ownership of FAD programs, and potentially use funds from license revenues from distant fishing nations that use their waters (Bell et al. 2015).

Local governments can also enlist the help of industrial fishing companies that currently deploy anchored FAD’s when fishing to assist in the installations of nearshore FAD’s. Each FAD program within PICT’s needs to be adapted to fit the capabilities of each particular island- the points outlined in paper are a blueprint, not a checklist. Overall, FAD’s are one of the few options that can provide food security, especially in rural coastal areas, and should be seriously considered in the coming years (Bell et al. 2015).

Works Cited

Bell, Johann D., et al. “Optimising the use of nearshore fish aggregating devices for food security in the Pacific Islands.” Marine Policy 56 (2015): 98-105.

Bell, Johann D., et al. “Planning the use of fish for food security in the Pacific.” Marine Policy 33.1 (2009): 64-76.

Fish Avoid Coral Habitats Due to the Presence of Algae

By Leila AtallahBenson, SRC masters student

A thriving coral reef community

A thriving coral reef community

The issue

Coral reefs are one of the most diverse, beautiful ecosystems in the world. They contain an array of marine life, swimming around magnificently colored coral. Unfortunately, due to climate change, these once thriving ecosystems are changing. Visible shifts in coral communities usually start with the increasing presence of algae (Figure 2). Although algae are natural and important in healthy coral communities, too much of certain algae can outcompete coral-dwelling symbionts. With decreased coral cover and increased nutrients due to human factors, algae are quickly filling in extra space decreasing coral chances of regaining cover. Corals provide habitat, food, and recruitment cues for many coral reef organisms, and an algae shift will not only hurt the corals, but coral reef communities as a whole.

Threshold of a coral reef community to an algae dominated one.

Threshold of a coral reef community to an algae dominated one.

Experiment and results

Earlier this year researchers wanted to know if associations between coral reef fishes and corals were the same with and without algae present. Butterflyfish, which are known to have a high dependence on corals for food, were exposed to corals with and without two species of algae on them (figure 3). 96% of associations between the fish and coral occurred on corals with no algae. When exposed to both visual and chemical cues, most butterflyfish species preferred to stay where seaweed was not. When the algae were physically removed, new fishes were exposed to the lingering algae chemical cues. One algae attracted butterflyfish, Sargassum polycystum, while the other, Galaxaura filamentosa, a highly toxic algae to corals, still caused fish to avoid the reef. The control reef with no algae or chemical cues still attracted fish.

Butterflyfish in Lord Howe, Australia.

Butterflyfish in Lord Howe, Australia.

These experiments tell us that butterflyfish use both visual and chemical cues during habitat interactions. Visual algae cues make it more difficult for fish to see coral polyps, and/or to pick up on their chemical cues. Chemical signatures of corals may be altered via stress, seaweed chemicals, or types of defense, given certain algae presence. Coral nutritional value may be decreased when exposed to algae, and these cues may warn butterflyfish from wasting energy.


 This is bad news for both corals and butterflyfish. If the majority of butterflyfish feeding occurs on corals without seaweed presence, these healthier corals will have to spend lots of energy in repairing and maintaining their polyps. With increased algal cover, feeding will only intensify on these healthy coral colonies. The increased pressure may lead to decreased efficiency or even mortality. When these corals collapse, butterflyfish will be forced to utilize corals with algae present, thus decreasing their efficiency. This is but one of many examples showing how climate change can drastically effect habitats, forwardly altering entire communities. It’s imperative for people to work together to decrease our carbon footprint and slow the changes of climate change in order to protect these wildly diverse ecosystem.


Brooker, R.M., Brandl, S.J., Dixson, D.L. 2016. Cryptic effects of habitat declines: coral-associated fishes avoid coral-seaweed interactions due to visual and chemical cues. Scientific Reports 6.

Science, society, and flagship species: social and political history as keys to conservation outcomes in the Gulf of California

By Cameron Perry, SRC intern

Effective conservation measures must incorporate all stakeholders in the decision making process as well as take into account the social and political atmosphere in which they are created. Conservation measures, even with the best intentions, will fail when they do not take into account these important factors. Montemayer and Vincent (2016) examined a case study from the Gulf of California where a determined conservation lobby and political opportunity led to a rapid establishment of a marine reserve to protect the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) and the vaquita (Phocoena sinus). However, lack of community involvement has led to undermined effectiveness, alienation of indigenous people and risk for the species future.

Biologist holding a Totoaba with a Vaquita at his feet.

Biologist holding a Totoaba with a Vaquita at his feet.

The totoaba and the vaquita are both critically endangered species that are endemic to the Gulf of California. The totoaba has suffered from the damming of the Colorado River that greatly reduced freshwater flow since the 1960s. Totoaba are also illegally caught for their highly prized swim bladder which is considered a Chinese delicacy. The vaquita is the world’s most endangered marine mammal and there are only about 60 left in the wild (CIRVA, 2015). This represents a 92% decrease in abundance since 1997. Larger numbers of fishers, versatile gear and boats and open-access conditions have led to overfishing and habitat degradation that has threatened the existence of these species. Currently, there is a reserve established that aims to protect vital habitat for both the vaquita and the totoaba.

Montemayer and Vincent (2016) aimed to study the process that led to the creation of this reserve as well as the socio-political environment in which these actions took place. This research is crucial in order to (1) examine both positive and negative outcomes, and (2) improve future policies.

They found that a series of rapid events with little public involvement in the planning process led to the creation of the reserve in 1993. The reserve was proposed in March 1993 and enacted three months later by a presidential decree. During the second half of the 1990s, an NGO wanted to expand the area of the reserve to protect more habitat for the vaquita and totoaba. Conservation efforts were met with backlash, and this led to a period of socio-political resistance against environmental groups, who were thought to have created a reserve with few benefits and no consultation with local communities. Fishing restrictions were never fully respected by fishers and there are often illegal activities that still occur within the reserve. The lack of incorporating tradition, culture and economic needs of coastal communities has led to unsustainable practices and caused the reserve to not meet its goals.

The Vaquita, endemic to the Gulf of California, has suffered a 92% population decline since 1997. This species is at serious risk of extinction, with only about 60 individuals left in the wild.

The Vaquita, endemic to the Gulf of California, has suffered a 92% population decline since 1997. This species is at serious risk of extinction, with only about 60 individuals left in the wild.

This careful analysis of the actions and political environment in which the reserve was created are important to enhance understanding for successful conservation planning in the future. It stressed that the social and political history and full stakeholder involvement must be recognized before regulations can be enacted. Key characteristics of success were defined which included stakeholder involvement, well-defined goals and objectives, a wide and transparent inclusion of scientific knowledge, ongoing monitoring of outcomes and thoughtful design.

Ecological needs should emerge from scientific processes, but it is crucial to identify stakeholders and include their interests before policy suggestions are presented (Montemayer and Vincent, 2016).


CIRVA (Comite Internacional Para la Recuperacion de la Vaquita/International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita). Scientific Reports of: First Meeting, 25–26 January 1997; Second Meeting, 7–11 February 1999; Third Meeting, 18–24 January 2004; Fourth Meeting, 20-23 February 2012; Fifth Meeting, 7-11 July 2014; Sixth Meeting, 22 May 2015.  Available at

Cisneros-Montemayor, Andres and Amanda Vincent. 2016. Science, society, and flagship species: social and political history as keys to conservation outcomes in the Gulf of California. Ecology and Society 21(2)

Harnessing the Power of the Web as a Tool for Conservation, Not Sensation

By Kevin Reagan, SRC Intern

Meet the pygmy slow loris, one of the world’s most threatened primates and star of one of the most popular animal videos uploaded to YouTube. The video featured Sonya, a female pygmy slow loris, being tickled in a bedroom in Russia. It accumulated 9,338,000 views between April 2009 and January 2012 (when it was removed due to animal rights concerns) and received 12,411 comments over that time (Nekaris 2013).  Since pygmy slow loris’ are endangered, trade in any of the eight species is prohibited by CITES, and it is illegal to keep them as pets. With the dawn of the digital age came the birth of a world that is constantly plugged in, and the video being uploaded to YouTube brought people into contact with an animal that many of them, based on the analysis of the comments left on the video, had never even heard of (Nekaris 2013). This is just one of the many direct examples of the ability of the web and the media to influence public opinion. One in ten people that commented alluded to wanting a slow loris as a pet, either ignoring or ignorant to the fact that it is illegal. The web and media as a whole have an unmatched ability to influence public opinions and perceptions. Though the effect is not always negative, many times news outlets around the world fall short when it comes to covering conservation issues and negative human-animal interactions.

Individual pygmy slow loris.

Individual pygmy slow loris.

The sad reality of today’s 24-hour news cycle is that sensational headlines, while they may not reflect the true, factual nature of the story, generate more money for news organizations simply because they receive more attention. Sensational headlines can be thought of as headlines that present the world as hostile or threatening (McLeod 588). In other words, attention-grabbing. These can have a noticeable effect on public opinions, especially when it comes to animal conservation and risk perception of large predatory species such as bears, coyotes, or sharks that are occasionally part of negative interactions with humans. Unfortunately, these interactions usually result in injury to the person involved, or in some cases death. However, headlines are not the only issue; many times, articles and stories focus on the more “exciting” aspects of certain animals (e.g. attacks) rather than other issues facing those same animals, like conservation threats. Unfortunately, more articles focus on the threats that animals pose to humans rather than the threats that humans pose to animals.

Even though journalists in general are trained to give readers as much background information as they can (in order to tie together their main story with solid information and place everything in an accurate context for the general public), the time-driven aspect of news prevents this more often than not (Boyer 123). When a story breaks, journalists have a limited amount of time to write an article and get it out to people; not only are they under pressure from deadlines, but if they wait too long, the story may be reported by another news agency, or simply become old news. Because of this, articles and stories concerning things like shark attacks many times do not have input from the shark researchers or conservationists that could round out the story and place it in an entirely different context (Boyer 123-124).

Early newspaper with a sensational headline reading “Jersey Shark-Hunters Out for Big Man-Eaters on Jersey Coast.” This was written in response to a string of shark attacks off the coast of New Jersey in the early 1900’s.

Early newspaper with a sensational headline reading “Jersey Shark-Hunters Out for Big Man-Eaters on Jersey Coast.” This was written in response to a string of shark attacks off the coast of New Jersey in the early 1900’s.

A 2013 study of Australian and U.S. news media portrayal of sharks and their conservation found that even though there is a substantial amount of evidence indicating that many shark species are at risk, shark attacks were reported five times more often than conservation concerns or any shark-related topic in both Australian and U.S. media. Authors write that “Social framing of sharks as either

victims or perpetrators may lead to assumptions about policy prescriptions (e.g., help the victim, persecute the perpetrator) (Muter et al. 2009). If sharks continue to be framed primarily as perpetrators of risk, policy responses will likely remain unfavorable to shark conservation”(Muter 194-195). The message of movies such as Jaws and Deep Blue Sea or headlines that say things like “Dolphin saves swimmer’s life when great white shark appears” give sharks, especially the great white, a negative public image. The headline implies that once the shark appeared its single goal was to attack and eat the swimmer and by some stroke of luck a dolphin fought off the shark, even though that is not the case. This type of reporting, combined with sharks’ exceptional susceptibility to human related pressures, is bad news for shark conservation and protection worldwide.

Sharks are not the only animals that receive media attention. On August 19, 2002, a black bear in Sullivan County, New York, fatally injured an infant at a summer bungalow colony. The bear was subsequently hunted down and killed, and the event received coverage on local, state and national levels. Ironically, one year before this incident, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) began formulating a new management plan for black bears in the state. Public risk perceptions associated with black bears and media coverage were considered as part of the initial discussions, and data was collected via a survey of New York residents in March 2002 (Gore 508-509). This initial survey provided an unintended but beneficial representation of resident’s attitudes before the attack that allowed researchers to compare attitudes pre- and post-attack after completing an additional follow up survey three weeks after the infant’s death. Previous studies have shown that wildlife related human fatalities are often widely covered by the media and expose many people to messages about the incidents and animals involved they may not have otherwise had contact with. This was also the case in New York State following the attack; there was increased public awareness due to media coverage (Boyer 513).

An illegally killed bear found outside of the Avoyelles Parish in Louisiana.

An illegally killed bear found outside of the Avoyelles Parish in Louisiana.

However, Boyer et al. found that in this instance there was not much amplification of social risk perception of black bears. Confused by this contradiction to what was predicted by the “social amplification of risk theory”, the researchers looked into potential reasons for the change in perception. They found that many of the articles that discussed the attack were not only short-term coverage, but also emphasized the rarity of such attacks, giving Boyer and his colleagues reason to believe that by media coverage emphasizing the rarity of these attacks, existing perceptions of low risk were reinforced (Boyer 513-514). In this instance, media actually had a positive effect on conservation by overall practicing honest reporting that included most, if not all, of the facts.

It is my personal belief that the media can have a massive impact on the public opinions and perceptions of risk when it comes to conservation, especially when it concerns predatory animals that have historically been involved in attacks and negative interactions with humans. Many times this impact is negative, as was the case for Sonya the slow loris, but it can also be positive, as seen in the aftermath of the black bear attack on the infant in New York. Media has the unique opportunity to bring people into contact with topics or animals they would never normally interact with, and journalists have the opportunity (and arguably a moral responsibility) to use their resources as tools for conservation and not sensation.



Boyer, Steve. “Sharks and the Media.” For most current information: http://extension. oregonstate. edu/catalog (1987): 119.

Gore, Meredith L., et al. “Effects on risk perception of media coverage of a black bear-related human fatality.” Wildlife Society Bulletin 33.2 (2005): 507-516.

McLeod, J., Ward, S., & Tancill, K. (1965). Alienation and uses of the mass media. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 29(4), 583-594. doi:10.1086/267361

Muter, Bret A., et al. “Australian and US news media portrayal of sharks and their conservation.” Conservation Biology 27.1 (2013): 187-196.

Nekaris, K. Anne-Isola, et al. “Tickled to death: analysing public perceptions of ‘cute’videos of threatened species (slow lorises–Nycticebus spp.) on web 2.0 Sites.” PloS one 8.7 (2013): e69215.

Lifting, Not Shifting, Baselines in the Face of Conservation Success

By Kevin Reagan, SRC Intern

Twenty years ago the term “shifting baselines” was explored and coined by a fisheries scientist named Daniel Pauly in his paper titled “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries.” This term is used to describe the idea that with each successive generation, in this case speaking of generations of fisheries scientists, the baseline (or standard) of fish stocks, abundance, size, growth rate, etc. is what they observed in the population at the beginning of their careers. Losses before this time are not really seen as losses because the norm is what’s observed when scientists begin, and this is not necessarily the case; in most instances that number is already far below what historic levels were and not the true baseline that would describe a healthy, fully recovered population. What is even worse is that it shifts with each generation, gradually moving farther away from where it should be and being considered fine.

However, in recent years, certain species of animals are recovering and growing in number, eventually returning to areas they had long been absent from. This is almost always a result of the reduction/banning of commercial hunting, like the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, and harmful chemicals like DDT. In this paper, authors propose the idea of “lifting baselines” as part of the shifting baselines syndrome to describe and celebrate conservation success stories. In analysis of trends of 92 different marine species, 42% were increasing in number, 10% were decreasing, and the rest showed no change in status. This is not to say that this is a universal trend; huge numbers of species are still in decline and we are still in the midst of a massive extinction event. Even so, many species are doing better than before. For instance, elephant seals were almost hunted to extinction in the late 1800’s. It is estimated that as few as twenty individuals remained. But, after being protected by Mexico and the U.S. in the 1920’s, their numbers have rebounded to over 200,000 seals.

Northern elephant seal rookery on Año Nuevo Island, CA. The graph depicts the increase in the number of births of elephant seals since 1960.

Northern elephant seal rookery on Año Nuevo Island, CA. The graph depicts the increase in the number of births of elephant seals since 1960.

While the recovery of species is great news for conservation scientists, it is not always welcomed by the public, especially recovery of marine predators. Many maritime industries developed while predators were few and far between and expected them to stay that way. Now that their numbers have rebounded, people believe there to be a surplus regardless of what the numbers were before exploitation (example of shifting baselines). This can result in a call for culling (mass killing) of the animals because they’re considered a nuisance. Lifting baselines, where “successful recovery of depleted species is verified, celebrated, and understood in an ecological and historical context,” can counter this. Authors developed four basic strategic recommendations to lift baselines, develop public support, and create acceptance in the sociopolitical arena around these success stories. They are as follows:

  1. When protection works, celebrate it!

– Conservation scientists and NGO’s need to actively engage the public in monitoring and recording a species’ return to its previous historic numbers. This creates a positive attitude and a sense of responsibility for the animal’s recovery.

  1. Down/delist species that no longer require protective measures

–  Reward the efforts that reversed the species’ decline and allow the time and resources previously being used to help those species that are still in trouble.

  • Actively anticipate and manage potential and actual conflicts that are the result of range expansion and trophic interactions of recovering species.

–  Monitor ecological changes and engage stakeholders as part of the recovery strategy. Recovering species will influence other species and the food web as it assumes its role in the environment. Investigating these relationships between species of concern will help develop realistic recovery targets and management goals

  1. True costs and benefits of removing “nuisance” animals through different means must be established.

–  In general, there is very little follow-up after the removal of nuisance animals and cost-benefit analyses are almost never performed. Costs should be quantified and include both ecological and social measures. If the methods used are not cost-effective, a less destructive and invasive approach is needed

These recommendations should be put in place while the initial conservation steps are being taken. Clear and realistic recovery goals can help species move off the endangered species list and accurate estimates of costs/benefits can turn wildlife from a scapegoat to an asset. However, this will require input from more than just scientists. Economists, artists, journalists, and social scientists will all be needed for effective public outreach and conservation measures, especially to reduce conflicts between humans and endangered animals. If we all work together, we can establish conservation plans that are practical, can make a difference, and most importantly, are realistic.


Roman, Joe, Meagan M. Dunphy-Daly, David W. Johnston, and Andrew J. Read. “Lifting Baselines to Address the Consequences of Conservation Success.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 30.6 (2015): 299-302. Web.


Whale Conservation in the Mediterranean

By Jessica Wingar, RJD Intern

Conservation of threatened species is very critical in order to maintain the state of our oceans. There is a wide range of reasons for why the species needs to be conserved from threat of boat strikes to disease outbreak. However, humans cause many of these threats. In an effort to protect these threatened species from humans, marine protected areas, or MPAs, can be established. In this study, researchers were looking at whether it would be more effective to establish a series of MPAs or to restrict shipping through the International Maritime Organization, IMO, in order to protect the Mediterranean fin whale. The researchers looked at the advantages and disadvantages to all of the options available to determine what would be the best method of protection for a wide-ranging cetacean such as this species of fin whale.


Current distribution of the Mediterranean fin whale in the Mediterranean Sea.

Researchers from University College London and Stockholm University looked at the current state of the Mediterranean fin whale and the causes of its need for conservation to devise the most effective course of action to protect this species. This species of fin whale is on the IUCN’s red list as Vulnerable. The main threat facing this species is collisions with ships. One of the issues facing the protect of Mediterranean fin whales is that a lot of the Sea is not governed by any particular country. However, some of the countries bordering the Mediterranean are currently trying to create a collection of MPAs to protect these waters.


Current protected areas in the Mediterranean

In the study, the researchers concluded that including IMO in the conservation of whales would lead to increased protection of these animals. One of these reasons is that this organization has the tools to monitor the area in order to decrease factors that lead to whale and boat collisions. One of these ways would be to order a reduction in boat speed. If IMO puts this law into place, it becomes mandatory for all of the member nations of IMO to follow this. IMO is also respected in the shipping industry, so by them recognizing the threat of ships to whales, other vessels will follow creating a cascading effect. In addition, changes can occur quickly under IMO  and ships are more likely to feel inclined to follow the rules of IMO than if the area was a MPA.

Studies of this nature are very important because they discuss an alternative plan for protection and start a discussion about the pros and cons of each plan. IMO and the governments of the countries involved will, hopefully implement the plan for conservation that the researchers devised. Thus causing greater plans for the protection of the Mediterranean fin whale.



Geijer, C. K.A., and Peter J.S. Jones. “A network approach to migratory whale conservation: Are MPAs the way forward or do all roads lead to the IMO?” Marine Policy 51 (2014): 1-12.

Photo of the Week: Invasive Lionfish

A fisherman spears an invasive lionfish in the warm, shallow waters of Nassau, Bahamas.

A fisherman spears an invasive lionfish in the warm, shallow waters of Nassau, Bahamas.

Shark Research Featured on Animal Planet – Wild Recon (March 9 @ 8 pm)

Dear All

Our research was featured on a special episode of Wild Recon on Animal Planet:

You can Watch the Full Episode Here (Click here to download)

Our segment is occurs between the following times: 18:48 – 32:33

Wild Recon Episode:
Ocean Killers

Hunted for their fins, shark populations are plummeting across the globe. Animal adventurer Donald Schultz joins scientists in a race against time to save these fearsome predators from extinction.

Our segment is between the following times: 18:48 – 32:33

Filming for Wild Recon with Donald Shultz (Click to Enlarge)

Sampling a hammerhead – filmed during Wild Recon on Animal Planet (Click to Enlarge)