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Coral Reefs In Crisis

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg spoke from Australia about the coral reef crisis at the Charles B. Wang Center auditorium in Stony Brook’s first teleconferenced event lecture Friday night.

Coral reefs, built from reef-building coral that secrete calcium carbonate to form the skeletal structure, are one of the key elements to sustaining biodiversity in the intricate ecosystem. Corals are marine organisms closely related to sea anemones that get nearly 90 percent of their energy from a mutual relationship with zooxanthella, a type of algae. In this symbiotic relationship, the coral host provides carbon dioxide that is necessary for photosynthesis, which in turn provides energy for the coral.

Stresses in the waters from human activities are disrupting the balance and many coral reef ecosystems are dying.

About 47 percent of reef-building coral in the world are facing danger, according to a recent study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, and that is a big threat to biodiversity in the ecosystem. The coral reef’s ecosystem is an intricate balance of different organisms, sustaining many different species of marine life.

If the coral reef ecosystem disappears, the fishing and tourism industry will end. Currently, these industries bring in more than $100 million dollars into U.S. economy, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Hoegh-Guldberg, from the University of Queensland in Australia, spoke about the underwater crisis as audience members, ensconced in the red auditorium seats, watched and listened intently to the lecture.

Brianne Ryder, 20, took notes meticulously. “I’m here because I’m a marine science major,” Ryder said. She was also there because she has concerns about the environment.

Worldwide, coral cover is down. Today, there is half of the coral cover there was two decades ago, according to Hoegh-Guldberg. The professor explained that human activities are transforming the marine environment and endangering the reefs.

Environmental changes cause coral bleaching — the loss of color and life in coral structures. The process occurs when the coral is stressed, causing it to expel the zooxanthella that it needs to obtain energy.

Global warming is taking a huge toll in the coral reef system. There has been rise in the temperature of the tropical waters that is upsetting the coral environment. A single degree above the summer maximum temperature can set off coral bleaching, Hoegh-Guldberg explained. He emphasized that strong evidence supports the existence of global warming.

“I believe even Sarah Palin is now believing in climate change and that is a good change,” Hoegh-Guldberg said jokingly. “Hopefully, she will also realize that cavemen didn’t live in the same time as dinosaurs.” The crowd chuckled.

In 2002, nearly 60 percent of the Great Barrier Reef was damaged from a minor temperature change, according to the professor. The same happened in 1998 and 2006.

Pollution and agricultural activity tamper with the ecosystem’s stability. Additional nutrients promote the growth of unwanted species of organisms that disturb the symbiotic relationship between the coral and zooxanthella.

The fishing industry also contributes to the disappearing coral reef because fisheries often overfish. Overfishing takes out key species of marine life that maintain the fragile equilibrium. “We are literally plundering the seas everywhere to the point where we are taking out key ecologically important species,” Hoegh-Guldberg said.

Parrot fish keep the balance in the coral reef ecosystem by consuming seaweed that upset the balance of the environment.

Hoegh-Guldberg spent nearly his entire academic career studying coral reefs. The expert took interest in biology in his childhood years. “I guess it started with goldfish at the age of 5,” Hoegh-Guldberg said.

His interest in coral reefs flourished when his grandfather came to Australia in 1969 to collect endangered species of butterflies for a Danish museum. His grandfather took him to the Great Barrier Reef.

The coral reefs are the most diverse ecosystem on Earth, rivaling the rainforest in biodiversity, Hoegh-Guldberg explained. He concluded the lecture by putting emphasis on the point that action must be taken to help save this ecosystem.

After the lecture finished, the audience was eager to take action to save the coral.

Cheng said she was possibly looking to go in a different direction. “It makes me want to change back to environmental.”

Bethany Sutcliffe, 19, was moved by the lecture. She was inspired to take action. “What about the small people?” asked the biochemistry student. “What can we do?”

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