Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Coral Reefs for our Kids

Thinking back I don't know that I've ever written a post about my PhD. Or maybe ever mentioned my PhD. For those who don't know I'm doing a PhD. I started 18 months ago, so about 18 months into my time here in Kenya. Since I started I have spent more and more time on that research and less on A Rocha responsibilities. At the moment I am doing almost pure research, as my very able and wonderful colleague Peter takes over from me. This means that I spend most of my waking hours on my research question and so now I will inflict it on you. 
I want to understand how coral reefs interact with thermal stress and climate change and its infamous result, mass coral bleaching. Reefs around the world really have collapsed in the face of increasingly thermal stress in our shallow coastal waters, becoming unrecognisable rubble fields, where once stood vibrant, complex ecosystems. Of all the world's habitats coral reefs are possibly the most impacted system currently from climate change and one of the most threatened with future predictions of  ocean warming and acidification. 
What has been most confusing is that seemingly well protected coral reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef or the Chagos Archipelago and even our small marine park here in Watamu, lost the majority of their coral during mass-bleaching events in the past 20 years. Some of these reefs have bounced back, but others haven't and there doesn't seem to be a straight forward answer why this is. 
I won't bore you with the details, but this is what I am studying. What makes reefs resilient, why do they persist or fail, what ecological processes control this? Most elusively and most interestingly I also hope to push forward our knowledge and the question on many coral reef scientist's lips, which reefs will survive for our kids to see? 
The past two weeks I have been down in Kisite on the south coast, near Tanzania, diving twice a day in various fringing reefs and micro-atolls in that area looking at the variation in reef condition. I am looking for signs of health and recovery from previous bleaching events and comparing this with data from Watamu, Sumatra and in the coming year hopefully Mozambique and the Maldives as well. The protected reefs in Kisite are in a really good condition, with abundant and diverse coral and fish communities. I am really starting to see patterns in reef condition as well, such as the most sensitive butterflyfish, which will disappear quickly with decreasing environmental condition. The Bennett's butteflyfish seems to be the fussiest about living in high coral cover with almost no fishing pressure. If you see this guy on your reef, its probably a happy sign :-). 
Healthy reef at Mako Kokwe 

Bennett's Butterflyfish

Fusilier swimming over a huge table coral

Nothing to do with reef resilience, but check out this crazy oyster we found!

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