By: Cate Jones
Globally, coral reefs are experiencing high levels of bleaching and biodiversity loss. For example, the Great Barrier Reef experienced a massive bleaching event between 2015 and 2017 that left half of the corals dead (Braverman, 2019). According to many scientists, coral reefs are threatened by the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch that is characterized by changes caused by human actions (Braverman, 2019; Davis & Todd, 2017). Furthermore, coral reefs support approximately 25% of all marine life and thus threats to reefs threaten all marine life, as well as people that rely on reefs for food, money, and more (Kapono et al., 2022). The importance of coral reefs and the threats they face make protecting reefs a crucial conservation project.
There are differing perspectives about how to best conserve coral reefs. One perspective is the Western scientific perspective, which itself is divided. Generally, this perspective involves conservation efforts rooted in “rigorous science” (Bellwood et al., p. 613, 2019). Some scientists have a defeatist approach and believe drastic increases in public awareness and new government policies are necessary for coral reefs to not be doomed within the next 30 years (Braverman, 2019). They think nothing short of these massive changes will save reefs. As David Bellwood and his colleagues write, “bold action, not cosmetic conservation, is needed to address the coral reef crisis” (Bellwood et al., p. 613, 2019). These views fit into what Paul Robbins and Sarah Moore call “anthrophobia,” defined as panic about the immense negative impact humans have on their nonhuman surroundings that they feel is being underestimated (2012). This is clearly seen in defeatist scientists in reef conservation who view current efforts as underplaying the threat to coral reefs and want greater control and action. Other scientists have a more hopeful approach, continuing to advocate for local intervention (Braverman, 2019). For example, Ruth Gates and Madeleine van Oppen are conducting experiments to propagate “super corals” that survived the Great Barrier Reef bleaching event in captivity and then introducing these corals back into the reef to help restore it (Braverman, 2019).
Another perspective is that reef conservation should utilize local Indigenous knowledge, also known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). There are also differences within this perspective. Some think that TEK should be integrated into scientific conservation practices. One example is the integration of TEK into marine science to determine management strategies to protect bumphead parrotfish, a keystone species in reef ecosystems, in the Solomon Islands (Aswani & Hamilton, 2004). In this project, scientists shaped their research using TEK gathered through conversations with Indigenous Peoples living in Roviana, Solomon Islands. Once they determined what Indigenous knowledge their results supported, they made recommendations for marine protected areas (MPAs) based on those results and the values, practices, etc. of different Indigenous communities in the Roviana region. However, this use of TEK is problematic. Paul Nadasdy criticizes these integrations of TEK as compartmentalizing and distilling Indigenous knowledge. Compartmentalization involves forcing TEK into the categories of Western science, such as only focusing on “bumphead parrotfish TEK.” Distillation involves scientists only utilizing information that they find “significant” within the already compartmentalized TEK (Nadasdy, 1999). For example, “first, is Roviana’s indigenous ecological knowledge about the bumphead parrotfish scientifically reliable?” is a key question asked by Aswani and Hamilton (p. 70, 2004). This highlights that bumphead parrotfish TEK becomes useful to them only when scientifically verified.
Others advocate for traditional management strategies by local Indigenous coral reef communities (ICRCs). ICRCs have many traditional values associated with the coral reefs they have coexisted with for centuries to millennia, such as viewing marine ecosystems as important as terrestrial ecosystems; having traditionally protected areas with human activity restricted to ceremonial, religious, etc. purposes; using seasons and the lunar cycle to determine when to fish; and incorporation of reefs in their ceremonies and art (Marrie, 2018). These practices and values contribute to ICRCs’ TEK and give Indigenous Peoples a deep understanding of how to best take care of reefs. We can see the positive impact of Indigenous Peoples’ management of reefs in many ways, such as increased fish biomass and size in their protected areas (Cinner et al., 2005; McClanahan et al., 2006). Not only are ICRCs able to use their knowledge and practices to benefit the reef ecosystems, but they are also able to benefit themselves by gathering food, making a livelihood fishing, etc. (Cinner et al., 2005). When incorporating Indigenous knowledge into “mainstream” conservation, it is crucial to remember the phrase “nothing about us without us” (Kapono et al., 2022).
In my opinion, there is no singular solution to coral reef conservation that can be effective long-term on its own. While anthrophobia is unproductive as it causes paralysis, anthrophobic scientists aren’t wrong to be concerned about the rapid pace of climate change and its effect on coral reefs. Addressing this problem requires activism and policy changes to reduce carbon emissions, fossil fuel usage, etc. on a global level. However, anthrophobia leads to thinking that nothing other than these changes make an impact, which simply isn’t true. Furthermore, these kinds of changes take much time because of the current sociopolitical climate. If we do nothing in the meantime, corals may die at even higher rates to the point of not being able to recover certain reefs at all by the time policy changes are made.
Thus, local conservation of individual reef systems is critically important, especially Indigenous management of their reef ecosystems. Management and restoration of individual reefs is greatly important for helping prevent the complete loss of coral reefs that have great cultural, monetary, etc. value to ICRCs in particular, but to the world as well. And as the people who have coexisted with reefs for centuries and often have a deep understanding of human and nonhuman interconnection, Indigenous Peoples have the most knowledge of how to best care for the coral reefs they live beside. We can see this reflected in research like that of Tim McClanahan and his colleagues, which examined reef MPAs in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. They found that while there was a significant increase in the biomass of targeted fish species (a measure of conservation effectiveness) in MPAs managed by local/Indigenous communities compared to non-managed reefs, national park MPAs showed no such increase (McClanahan, et al., 2006). It is also important to allow TEK and Indigenous management to exist independently from scientific knowledge and not use parts of TEK for non-Indigenous management, while leaving other aspects of TEK and Indigenous Peoples themselves out, as was done by Aswani and Hamilton. And while non-Indigenous, scientific management of coral reefs also has value, it cannot be the only management.
While the sociopolitical state of the world can make it difficult for people to be willing to concede that their way is not the only way, the best way to conserve coral reefs is allowing all of these strategies to coexist. Indigenous management can only do so much in the face of mass coral bleaching. Policy to fight climate change cannot help reefs that no longer exist. One without the others is far less likely to be successful long-term, and if we want to truly protect coral reefs, we need to deconstruct power hierarchies and genuinely cooperate.
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