I studied what happens to reef fish after coral bleaching. What I saw still makes me nauseous



Victor Huertas, Author provided

Jodie L. Rummer, James Cook University

The Great Barrier Reef is suffering its third mass bleaching event in five years. It follows the record-breaking mass bleaching event in 2016 that killed a third of Great Barrier Reef corals, immediately followed by another in 2017.

While we don’t know if fish populations declined from the 2016 bleaching disaster, one 2018 study did show the types of fish species on some coral reefs changed. Our study dug deeper into fish DNA.

I was part of an international team of scientists that, for the first time, tracked wild populations of five species of coral reef fish before, during, and after the 2016 marine heatwave.

From a scientific perspective, the results are fascinating and world-first.

Marine heatwaves are now becoming more frequent and more severe with climate change. Corals are bleaching, as pictured here.
Jodie Rummer, Author provided

We used gene expression as a tool to survey how well fish can handle hotter waters. Gene expression is the process where a gene is read by cell machinery and creates a product such as a protein, resulting in a physical trait.

We know many tropical coral reef fish are already living at temperatures close to their upper limits. Our findings can help predict which of these species will be most at risk from repeated heatwaves.




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But from a personal perspective, I still feel nauseous thinking about what the reef looked like during this project. I’ll probably feel this way for a long time.

Rewind to November 2015

We were prepared. Back then we didn’t know the reef was about to bleach and lead to widespread ecological devastation. But we did anticipate that 2016 would be an El Niño year. This is a natural climate cycle that would mean warm summer waters in early 2016 would stick around longer than usual.

But we can’t blame El Niño – the ocean has already warmed by 1°C above pre-industrial levels from continued greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, marine heatwaves are becoming more frequent and severe with climate change.

Given this foresight, we took some quick liver biopsies from several coral reef fish species at our field site in December 2015, just in case.

Coral bleaching at Magnetic Island, March 2020.
Victor Huertas, Author provided

A couple months later, we were literally in hot water

In February 2016, my colleague and I were based on Lizard Island in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef working on another project.

The low tides had shifted to the afternoon hours. We were collecting fish in the shallow lagoon off the research station, and our dive computers read that the water temperature was 33°C.




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We looked at each other. These are the temperatures we use to simulate climate change in our laboratory studies for the year 2050 or 2100, but they’re happening now.

Over the following week, we watched corals turn fluorescent and then bone-white.

The water was murky with slime from the corals’ immune responses and because they were slowly exuding their symbiotic zooxanthellae – the algae that provides corals with food and the vibrant colours we know and love when we think about a coral reef. The reef was literally dying before our eyes.

A third of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef perished after the 2016 heatwave.
Jodie Rummer, Author provided

Traits for dealing with heatwaves

We sampled fish during four time periods around this devastating event: before, at the start, during, and after.

Some genes are always “switched on”, regardless of environmental conditions. Other genes switch on or off as needed, depending on the environment.

If we found these fish couldn’t regulate their gene expression in response to temperature stress, then the functions – such as metabolism, respiration, and immune function – also cannot change as needed. Over time, this could compromise survival.




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The plasticity (a bit like flexibility) of these functions, or phenotypes, is what buffers an organism from environmental change. And right now, this may be the only hope for maintaining the health of coral reef ecosystems in the face of repeated heatwave events.

So, what were the fish doing?

We looked at expression patterns of thousands of genes. We found the same genes responded differently between species. In other words, some fish struggled more than others to cope with marine heatwaves.

Ostorhinchus doederleini, a species of cardinalfish, is bad at coping with marine heatwaves.
Göran Nilsson, Author provided

The species that coped the least was a nocturnal cardinalfish species (Cheilodipterus quinquelineatus). We found it had the lowest number of differentially expressed genes (genes that can switch on or off to handle different stressors), even when facing the substantial change in conditions from the hottest to the coolest months.

In contrast, the spiny damselfish (Acanthochromis polyacanthus) responded to the warmer conditions with changes in the expression of thousands of genes, suggesting it was making the most changes to cope with the heatwave conditions.

What can these data tell us?

Our findings not only have implications for specific fish species, but for the whole ecosystem. So policymakers and the fishing industry should screen more species to predict which will be sensitive and which will tolerate warming waters and heatwaves. This is not a “one size fits all” situation.

One of the species that showed the least amount of change under warming was Cheilodipterus quinquelineatus.
Moises Antonio Bernal de Leon, Author provided

Fish have been on the planet for more than 400 million years. Over time , they may adapt to rising temperatures or migrate to cooler waters.

But, the three recent mass bleaching events is unprecedented in human history, and fish won’t have time to adapt.




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My drive to protect the oceans began when I was a child. Now it’s my career. Despite the progress my colleagues and I have made, my nauseous feelings remain, knowing our science alone may not be enough to save the reef.

The future of the planet, the oceans, and the Great Barrier Reef lies in our collective actions to reduce global warming. What we do today will determine what the Great Barrier Reef looks like tomorrow.The Conversation

Jodie L. Rummer, Associate Professor & Principal Research Fellow, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Meet the super corals that can handle acid, heat and suffocation


Resilient corals are offering hope for bleached reefs.
Emma Camp

Emma F Camp, University of Technology Sydney and David Suggett, University of Technology Sydney

Climate change is rapidly changing the oceans, driving coral reefs around the world to breaking point. Widely publicised marine heatwaves aren’t the only threat corals are facing: the seas are increasingly acidic, have less oxygen in them, and are gradually warming as a whole.

Each of these problems reduces coral growth and fitness, making it harder for reefs to recover from sudden events such as massive heatwaves.




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Acid oceans are shrinking plankton, fuelling faster climate change


Our research, published today in Marine Ecology Progress Series, investigates corals on the Great Barrier Reef that are surprisingly good at surviving in increasingly hostile waters. Finding out how these “super corals” can live in extreme environments may help us unlock the secret of coral resilience helping to save our iconic reefs.

Bleached coral in the Seychelles.
Emma Camp, Author provided

Coral conservation under climate change

The central cause of these problems is climate change, so the central solution is reducing carbon emissions. Unfortunately, this is not happening rapidly enough to help coral reefs, so scientists also need to explore more immediate conservation options.

To that end, many researchers have been looking at coral that manages to grow in typically hostile conditions, such as around tide pools and intertidal reef zones, trying to unlock how they become so resilient.

These extreme coral habitats are not only natural laboratories, they house a stockpile of extremely tolerant “super corals”.

What exactly is a super coral?

“Super coral” generally refers to species that can survive both extreme conditions and rapid changes in their environment. But “super” is not a very precise term!

Our previous research quantified these traits so other ecologists can more easily use super coral in conservation. There are a few things that need to be established to determine whether a coral is “super”:

  1. What hazard can the coral survive? For example, can it deal with high temperature, or acidic water?

  2. How long did the hazard last? Was it a short heatwave, or a long-term stressor such as ocean warming?

  3. Did the coral survive because of a quality such as genetic adaption, or was it tucked away in a particularly safe spot?

  4. How much area does the coral cover? Is it a small pocket of resilience, or a whole reef?

  5. Is the coral trading off other important qualities to survive in hazardous conditions?

  6. Is the coral super enough to survive the changes coming down the line? Is it likely to cope with future climate change?

If a coral ticks multiple boxes in this list, it’s a very robust species. Not only will it cope well in our changing oceans, we can also potentially distribute these super corals along vulnerable reefs.

Some corals cope surprisingly well in different conditions.
Emma Camp, Author provided

Mangroves are surprise reservoirs

We discovered mangrove lagoons near coral reefs can often house corals living in very extreme conditions – specifically, warm, more acidic and low oxygen seawater.

Previously we have reported corals living in extreme mangroves of the Seychelles, Indonesia, New Caledonia – and in our current study living on the Great Barrier Reef. We report diverse coral populations surviving in conditions more hostile than is predicted over the next 100 years of climate change.

Importantly, while some of these sites only have isolated populations, other areas have actively building reef frameworks.

Particularly significant were the two mangrove lagoons on the Great Barrier Reef. They housed 34 coral species, living in more acidic water with very little oxygen. Temperatures varied widely, over 7℃ in the period we studied – and included periods of very high temperatures that are known to cause stress in other corals.

Mangrove lagoons can contain coral that survives in extremely hostile environments, while nearby coral reefs bleach in marine heatwaves.
Emma Camp, Author provided

While coral cover was often low and the rate at which they build their skeleton was reduced, there were established coral colonies capable of surviving in these conditions.

The success of these corals reflect their ability to adapt to daily or weekly conditions, and also their flexible relationship with various symbiotic micro-algae that provide the coral with essential resources.

While we are still in the early phases of understanding exactly how these corals can aid conservation, extreme mangrove coral populations hold a reservoir of stress-hardened corals. Notably the geographic size of these mangrove locations are small, but they have a disproportionately high conservation value for reef systems.




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Heat-tolerant corals can create nurseries that are resistant to bleaching


However, identification of these pockets of extremely tolerant corals also challenge our understanding of coral resilience, and of the rate and extent with which coral species can resist stress.The Conversation

Emma F Camp, DECRA & UTS Chancellor’s Research Fellow, Climate Change Cluster, Future Reefs Research Programe, University of Technology Sydney and David Suggett, Associate Professor in Marine Biology, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Sadness, disgust, anger’: fear for the Great Barrier Reef made climate change feel urgent



Tourists are experiencing ‘Reef grief’.
Matt Curnock, Author provided

Matt Curnock, CSIRO and Scott Heron, James Cook University

Media coverage of mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef may have been a major tipping point for public concerns around climate change, according to research published today.

Severe and extensive bleaching during the summers of 2016 and 2017 has been directly attributed to human-caused climate change. Much of the ensuing media coverage used emotional language, with many reports of the Reef dying.




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While the physical effects of the bleaching have been well documented, we wanted to understand the social and cultural impact.

Our research, including a study published today in Nature Climate Change, has compared survey responses from thousands of Australians and international visitors, before and after the bleaching event.

Reef grief

Our research team conducted face-to-face interviews with 4,681 visitors to the Great Barrier Reef region, in 14 coastal towns from Cooktown to Bundaberg, over June to August in both 2013 and 2017. We asked more than 50 questions about their perceptions and values of the Reef, as well as their attitudes towards climate change.

We found a large proportion of respondents, including Australians and overseas visitors, expressed forms of grief in response to loss and damage to the iconic ecosystem. Negative emotions associated with words given in short statements about “what the Great Barrier Reef means to you”, included sadness, disgust, anger and fear.




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Emotional appeals are widely used in media stories and in social media campaigns, and appealing to fear in particular can heighten a story’s impact and spread online.

However, a side-effect of this approach is the erosion of people’s perceived ability to take effective action. This is called a person’s “self-efficacy”.
This effect is now well documented in reactions to representations of climate change, and is actually a barrier to positive community engagement and action on the issue.

In short, the more afraid someone is for the Great Barrier Reef, the less they may feel their individual efforts will help to protect it.

While our results show a decline in respondents’ self-efficacy, there was a corresponding increase in how highly they valued the Reef’s biodiversity, its scientific heritage and its status as an international icon. They were also more willing to support action to protect the Reef. This shows widespread empathy for the imperilled icon, and suggests greater support for collective actions to mitigate threats to the Reef.

Researchers surveyed thousands of visitors to the Great Barrier Reef in 2013 and 2017.
Matt Curnock, Author provided

Changing attitudes

We observed a significant increase in the proportion of people who believe that climate change is “an immediate threat requiring action”. In 2013 some 50% of Australian visitors to the Great Barrier Reef region agreed climate change is an immediate threat; in 2017 that rose to 67%. Among international visitors, this proportion was even higher (64% in 2013, rising to 78% in 2017).

This represents a remarkable change in public attitudes towards climate change over a relatively short period. Previous surveys of Australian climate change attitudes over 2010 to 2014 showed that aggregate levels of opinion remained stable over that time.

Comparing our findings with other recent research describing the extent of coverage and style of reporting associated with the 2016-2017 mass coral bleaching event, we infer that this event, and the associated media representations, contributed significantly to the shift in public attitudes towards climate change.

Moving beyond fear

As a source of national pride and with World Heritage status, the Great Barrier Reef will continue to be a high profile icon representing the broader climate change threat.

Media reports and advocacy campaigns that emphasise fear, loss and destruction can get attention from large audiences who may take the message of climate change on board.

But this does not necessarily translate into positive action. A more purposeful approach to public communication and engagement is needed to encourage collective activity that will help to mitigate climate change and reduce other serious threats facing the Reef.

Examples of efforts that are underway to reduce pressures on the Reef include improvements to water quality, control of crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, and reducing poaching in protected zones. Tourism operators on the Reef are also playing an important role in restoring affected areas, and are educating visitors about threats, to improve Reef stewardship.

Clearly there remains an immediate need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to ensure the Reef’s World Heritage qualities are maintained for future generations.

However, maintaining hope, and offering accessible actions towards attainable goals is critical to engaging people in collective efforts, to help build a more sustainable future in which coral reefs can survive.


The authors would like to acknowledge Nadine Marshall, who co-wrote this article while employed by CSIRO. We thank our other co-authors of the Nature Climate Change paper, including Lauric Thiault (National Center for Scientific Research, PSL Université Paris), Jessica Hoey and Genevieve Williams (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority), Bruce Taylor and Petina Pert (CSIRO Land and Water) and Jeremy Goldberg (CSIRO & James Cook University). The scientific results and conclusions, as well as any views or opinions expressed herein, are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Government or the Minister for the Environment, or the Queensland Government, or indicate commitment to any particular course of action.The Conversation

Matt Curnock, Social Scientist, CSIRO and Scott Heron, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Bright white skeletons’: some Western Australian reefs have the lowest coral cover on record


Corals at Scott Reef in 2012, and at the same site during the 2016 mass bleaching.
James Gilmour/AIMS

James Paton Gilmour, Australian Institute of Marine Science and Rebecca Green, University of Western Australia

Diving on the remote coral reefs in the north of Western Australia during the world’s worst bleaching event in 2016, the first thing I noticed was the heat. It was like diving into a warm bath, with surface temperatures of 34⁰C.

Then I noticed the expanse of bleached colonies. Their bright white skeletons were visible through the translucent tissue following the loss of the algae with which they share a biological relationship. The coral skeletons had not yet eroded and collapsed, a grim reminder of what it looked like just a few months before.

I spent the past 15 years documenting the recovery of these reefs following the first global coral bleaching event in 1998, only to see them devastated again in the third global bleaching event in 2016.




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The WA coral reefs may not be as well known as the Great Barrier Reef, but they’re just as large and diverse. And they too have been affected by cyclones and coral bleaching. Our recent study found many WA reefs now have the lowest coral cover on record.

When my colleague, Rebecca Green, witnessed that mass bleaching for the first time, she asked me how long it would take the reefs to recover.

“Probably not in my lifetime” was my reply – an abrupt but accurate reply considering the previous rate of recovery, future increases in ocean temperatures … and my age.

The worst mass bleaching on record

A similar scene is playing out around the world as researchers document the decline of ecosystems they have spent a lifetime studying.

Our study, published in the journal Coral Reefs, is the first to establish a long-term history of changes in coral cover across eight reef systems, and to document the effects of the 2016 mass bleaching event at 401 sites across WA.




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Given the vast expanse of WA coral reefs, our assessment included data from several monitoring programs and researchers from 19 institutions.

These reefs exist in some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the
world, so our study also relied on important observations of coral bleaching from regional managers, tourist operators and Bardi Jawi Indigenous Rangers in the Kimberley.

Our aim was to establish the effects of climate change on coral reefs along Western Australia’s vast coastline and their current condition.

The heat stress in 2016 was the worst on record, causing mass bleaching and large reductions in coral cover at Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and Scott Reef. This was also the first time mass bleaching was recorded in the southern parts of the inshore Kimberley region, including in the long oral history of Indigenous Australians who have managed this sea-country for thousands of years.

The mass bleaching events we documented were triggered by a global increase in temperature of 1⁰C above pre-industrial levels, whereas temperatures are predicted to rise by 1.5⁰C between 2030 and 2052.

In that scenario, the reefs that have bleached badly will unlikely have the capacity to fully recover, and mass bleaching will occur at the reefs that have so far escaped the worst impacts.




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The future of WA’s coral reefs is uncertain, but until carbon emissions can be reduced, coral bleaching will continue to increase.

Surviving coral reef refuges must be protected

The extreme El Niño conditions in 2016 severely affected the northern reefs, and a similar pattern was seen in the long-term records.

The more southern reefs were affected by extreme La Niña conditions – most significantly by a heatwave in 2011 that caused coral bleaching, impacted fisheries and devastated other marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Since 2010, all of WA’s reefs systems have bleached at least once.

Frequent bleaching and cyclone damage have stalled the recovery of reefs at Shark Bay, Ningaloo and at the Montebello and Barrow Islands. And coral cover at Scott Reef, Ashmore Reef and at Christmas Island is low following the 2016 mass bleaching.

In fact, average coral cover at most (75%) reef systems is at or near the lowest on record. But not all WA reefs have been affected equally.

In 2016 there was little (around 10%) bleaching recorded at the northern inshore Kimberley Reefs, at the Cocos Keeling Islands, and at the Rowley Shoals. Coral cover and diversity at these reefs remain high.

And during mass bleaching there were patches of reef that were less affected by heat stress.

These patches of reef will hopefully escape the worst impacts and retain moderate coral cover and diversity as the world warms, acting as refuges. There are also corals that have adapted to survive in parts of the reef where temperatures are naturally hotter.

Some reefs across WA will persist, thanks to these refuges from heat stress, their ability to adapt and to expand their range. These refuges must be protected from any additional stress, such as poor water quality and overfishing.




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In any case, the longer it takes to curb carbon emissions and other pressures to coral reefs, the greater the loss will be.

Coral reefs support critical food stocks for fisheries around the world and provide a significant contribution to Australia’s Blue Economy, worth an estimated A$68.1 billion.

We are handing environmental uncertainty to the next generation of scientists, and we must better articulate to everyone that their dependence on nature is the most fundamental of all the scientific concepts we explore.The Conversation

James Paton Gilmour, Research Scientist: Coral Ecology, Australian Institute of Marine Science and Rebecca Green, Postdoctoral research associate, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coral reproduction on the Great Barrier Reef falls 89% after repeated bleaching


Morgan Pratchett, James Cook University

The severe and repeated bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef has not only damaged corals, it has reduced the reef’s ability to recover.

Our research, published today in Nature, found far fewer baby corals are being produced than are needed to replace the large number of adult corals that have died. The rate at which baby corals are settling on the Great Barrier Reef has fallen by nearly 90% since 2016.

While coral does not always die after bleaching, repeated bleaching has killed large numbers of coral. This new research has negative implications for the Reef’s capacity to recover from high ocean temperatures.

How coral recovers

Most corals reproduce by “spawning”: releasing thousands of tight, buoyant bundles with remarkable synchronisation. The bundles burst when they hit the ocean surface, releasing eggs and/or sperm. Fertilised eggs develop into larvae as they are moved about by ocean currents. The larvae settle in new places, forming entirely new coral colonies. This coral “recruitment” is essential to reef recovery.




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The research team, led by my colleague Terry Hughes from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, measured rates of coral recruitment by attaching small clay tiles to the reef just before the predicted mass spawning each year. These settlement panels represent a standardised habitat that allows for improved detection of the coral recruits, which are just 1-2mm in size.

Almost 1,000 tiles were deployed across 17 widely separated reefs after the recent mass bleaching, in late 2016 and 2017. After eight weeks they were collected and carefully inspected under a microscope to count the number of newly settled coral recruits. Resulting estimates of coral recruitment were compared to recruitment rates recorded over two decades prior to the recent bleaching.

Australian Academy of Science.

Rates of coral recruitment recorded in the aftermath of the recent coral bleaching were just 11% of levels recorded during the preceding decades. Whereas there were more than 40 coral recruits per tile before the bleaching, there was an average of just five coral recruits per tile in the past couple of years.




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Reef resilience

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is the world’s largest reef system. The large overall size and high number of distinct reefs provides a buffer against most major disturbances. Even if large tracts of the GBR are disturbed, there is a good chance at least some areas will have healthy stocks of adult corals, representing a source of new larvae to enable replenishment and recovery.

Larvae produced by spawning corals on one reef may settle on other nearby reefs to effectively replace corals lost to localised disturbances.

It is reassuring there is at least some new coral recruitment in the aftermath of severe bleaching and mass mortality of adult corals on the GBR. However, the substantial and widespread reduction of regrowth indicates the magnitude of the disturbance caused by recent heatwaves.

Declines in rates of coral recruitment were greatest in the northern parts of the GBR. This is where bleaching was most pronounced in 2016 and 2017, and there was the greatest loss of adult corals. There were much more moderate declines in coral recruitment in the southern GBR, reflecting generally higher abundance of adults corals in these areas. However, prevailing southerly currents (and the large distances involved) make it very unlikely coral larvae from southern parts of the Reef will drift naturally to the hardest-hit northern areas.

It is hard to say how long it will take for coral assemblages to recover from the recent mass bleaching. What is certain is low levels of coral recruitment will constrain coral recovery and greatly increase the recovery time. Any further large-scale developments with also greatly reduce coral cover and impede recovery.




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Reducing carbon emissions

This study further highlights the vulnerability of coral reefs to sustained and ongoing global warming. Not only do adult corals bleach and die when exposed to elevated temperatures, this prevents new coral recruitment and undermines ecosystem resilience.

The only way to effectively redress global warming is to immediately and substantially reduce global carbon emissions. This requires that all countries, including Australia, renew and strengthen their commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

While further management is required to minimise more direct human pressure on coral reefs – such as sediment run-off and pollution – all these efforts will be futile if we do not address global climate change.The Conversation

Morgan Pratchett, Professor, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.