Is It All Doom And Gloom? Total Impending Disaster?

Whatever we read in newspapers or watch on TV there seems to be an element of impending disaster somewhere in the natural world. Is it that bad?

First of all it should be remembered that newspapers and elements of TV thrive on ‘doomsday.’ Without bad news there will be a struggle to find a good enough headline. The media, in my opinion anyway, often makes mountains out of not always molehills but hills. It sells, which probably says a lot for all of us!

The major concern with the natural world used to be the cutting down of the world’s rain forests and this remains a high priority. These rain forests have been called the ‘lungs of the earth.’ The issue is even more important now that science has accepted that global warming actually exists. The majority of the public also accept the situation, though there are still those who remain in denial and state it is just a massive scam. The rain forests are capable as I understand it of absorbing very large amounts of greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) – provided the trees remain standing of course.

But this is a marine hobby website not a discussion forum on rain forests. So fair enough, what about the rain forests of the seas and oceans, the coral reefs. There’s plenty of doom and gloom in this area also. The oceans are acidifying because of absorption of carbon dioxide and also warming up. So if the corals don’t melt because of reducing pH they’ll die because they cannot tolerate the rapid increase in seawater temperature (rapid when compared to the length of time reefs have existed). Also seawater levels are rising and that causes additional problems for the corals. Now all of that’s nirvana for the gloom merchants!

There is a serious problem. There isn’t any denying it, the evidence is available for anyone to see, scientist or not. In some quarters it is said that the reefs are in terminal decline. It has been reported that the rate of decline is 2% each year. Doesn’t seem much but in fact it’s a lot. It has also been reported that around 1/5th of reef life has already disappeared overall, though of course some reefs are in better condition than others.

Reefs in general, though not all of them it depends a lot on location, have been getting into trouble because of us, mankind, for a while quite apart from global warming. This trouble has been due to overfishing, incorrect fishing methods (cyanide for example, which kills lots of creatures besides those targeted – those targeted often die later as well), using dynamite on the reefs to obtain building materials, run-off of silt from the land caused by de-forestation, and run-off of agricultural and industrial pollutants. There’s probably more.

These problems have been bad enough and the reefs now have to also deal with global warming, and they’re not doing well. What a sad and dismal sight it is to see pictures of dead reef areas – just rocks with a few forlorn looking fish around. I, like so many others, have been fascinated when snorkeling over reefs, with all the rainbow colours of the fish, swaying soft corals and the reef builders, the hard corals. How could it have come to such a situation! Sadly, it has.

However, I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist, but a realist. I see these as: optimist, ‘Oh, it’ll be all right, you’ll see,’ pessimist ‘It’s all a disaster, it’s too late, it’s all doomed,’ and a realist ‘Strewth, what a mess, hopefully the scientists might be mistaken though that’s unlikely. What can be done about it?’

There are some hopeful signs.

It appears that the politicians, usually never the ones to move at more than a snail’s pace, have accepted the overall problem (overall = global warming in general) and are looking to do something about it. They need by all accounts to move more quickly, but it has to be accepted that there’s a great deal to consider. The political area is of the utmost importance above anything else. If reasonable agreement can be achieved then the problem can be tackled.

In some of the natural reef areas corals are being grown from ‘frags’ (a frag is a cutting taken from a soft or hard coral). They are grown on extensive trestles beneath the sea. When they are large enough they are transferred to the reef and hopefully in time more corals can be grown from them. If the reef is in danger because of man-made problems, unless those problems are tackled, this action can only be at best a holding operation.

The marine hobby aquarium trade, which to my knowledge has not been accused of causing problems (unlike for example those who collect seahorses for alleged medical purposes or dry them for souvenirs), has tackled some recognized bad practices. Local collectors have been trained to collect in an ethical way and not use cyanide, thus protecting reef life in general and giving caught fish a better chance of continuing to live. Many retailers have voluntarily joined organisations that promote good retail practices, such as importing livestock from recognized sources only and keeping them in appropriate conditions until sold. Imports of livestock for the marine hobby overall are huge and it is obvious that the more sea life is protected the more the reefs will benefit.

What about us marine aquarists? Oh great, here it comes, we must try harder and ‘be good.’ Not at all! There are poor and ineffective aquarists who would be better off giving up the hobby, but they are a small minority.

The marine aquarium hobby has advanced unbelievably over the last decade. Aquariums of all sizes, reef or fish only, are being kept successfully, supported by advanced and reliable equipment. Aquarists have access to huge amounts of information, not only books but through that electronic wonder of the age, the internet. The results of all this can be seen by looking at pictures, a great number of these marine aquariums are truly beautiful.

Keeping a successful aquarium (that is, keeping it healthy for a long period measured in years) is not the major concern. Of course it is very important; a failed aquarium is a mini disaster in itself particularly for the unfortunate livestock. The major concern with the hobby now is production of livestock. It really heartens me when I see how many aquarists are producing home grown corals from ‘frags’ – corals that have not come from the wild but from an aquarium. These are appearing in such numbers now that, if it is not happening already, it will soon have a measurable impact on imports from the wild reefs. There is a further credit to this, and that is that the home grown corals are reputedly less sensitive in an aquarium than those from the wild, which makes sense.

On the same basis, but more difficult to achieve are the fish that are being home bred. These are not appearing in such numbers because of the inherent breeding difficulties. It was a great achievement when clownfish first appeared in dealer’s aquariums having been supplied from home sources. Now many more fish species are appearing as time goes by and one can only salute the patience and knowledge of those aquarists who are involved. How must those aquarists feel as they look upon a tank full of successfully grown saleable fish!

There’s another point about the marine aquarium hobby too. I’ve mused in the past about how big the hobby really is – could it possibly be the biggest hobby in the world? I don’t actually know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. With obvious exceptions, over the globe there are many, many marine aquarists. They keep fish or fish and corals. No matter which, what they have in total is a massive reserve of livestock, both fish and corals.

Already large numbers of corals can be home propagated. As said, the number of fish species that are being home bred is increasing. Perhaps in the future, when the politicians have reached some agreement and global warming and pollution problems have been tackled, marine hobbyists will be able to supply stock for the wild reefs.

How great would that be? Traffic in reverse. Beautiful reefs partially re-built from our aquariums.