Porter testifies about the loss of coral reefs

Writer: Beth Gavrilles, bethgav@uga.edu
Contact: James W. Porter, jporter@uga.edu

Athens, Ga. – James W. Porter, Josiah Meigs Distinguished Professor of Ecology, Emeritus, at the University of Georgia, testified before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in Washington, D.C. at 10 a.m. on June 4, 2019. Porter spoke about the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Assessment of Global Biodiversity Loss, particularly as it relates to coral reefs. A video recording of the hearing is available on the Committee’s website.

A marine ecologist who has studied the corals of Florida and the Caribbean for nearly 50 years, Porter was a science advisor and cast member for the Emmy-winning Netflix documentary Chasing Coral. He will host a screening of the film with a Q&A session for members of Congress and their families after the hearing.

Porter offered some thoughts on the IPBES report and what it means for corals.

The recent IPBES report suggests that 1 million species are now facing extinction. What does this mean for coral reefs and the species found there?

Coral reefs are ground zero for the biodiversity crisis. Our best estimate is that within the next 50 years coral reefs world-wide will go extinct, and with them up to a quarter of all marine plant and animal species. They are the most productive of all marine communities and the most biologically diverse environments on Earth.

This crisis is not in the distant future. It is here now.

The IPBES report highlighted that the loss of these species will have an impact on not only the ecosystems of the natural world but on human society as well. Why are coral reefs important to people, and how will their loss affect us?

500 million people rely on coral reefs for their primary source of protein and their jobs. Coral reefs generate $9.9 trillion U.S.D. per year. In Hawaii and Florida they create 50,000 full time jobs and more than $24 billion in economic revenue.

In the last two years, new drugs have been discovered on coral reefs that cure certain kinds of cancers, prevent heart attacks in older Americans, and kill the A.I.D.S. virus more effectively than AZT.

What are the chief threats to coral reefs and their species?

A: The main threat to coral reefs is climate change. Anthropogenic climate change causes increased ocean temperatures. Elevated temperatures cause corals to lose the symbiotic algae which live inside them and provide their food; when corals lose their symbiotic algae, they starve to death. (These symbiotic algae also give corals their color—the colors of coral are from plant pigments, not animal pigments—so when the algae die, you can see through the clear animal tissue to its white lime-stone skeleton underneath, hence the term “coral bleaching.”)

An increase of only 2 degrees centigrade kills coral. Given our current rate of burning fossil fuels, we expect to blow past that critical temperature threshold by the middle of this century. Last year, in a prelude to what we can expect in the near term, two-thirds of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef died due to elevated temperatures. We are terrified about what comes next.

What can be done to stem these losses?

It’s not too late. We need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and increase our use of non-fossil fuels such as wind, solar, and yes, nuclear.

All of these conservation actions will create good jobs and have an immediate economic benefit. And they will create a sustainable future for humankind, and coral reefs.