At the end of June I had the pleasure and privilege to attend the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS), the premier conference for coral reef scientists from all over the world held every four years. I attended my first ICRS presenting as a PhD student in October 2000 in Bali, Indonesia. I was then a wide-eyed grad student hungry to fulfill my curiosity of all things coral reefs – and that first ICRS conference allowed me to soak it all in and fill my mind with many more questions to investigate in the years to come. It consolidated my career path like no other professional meeting during my graduate school years, even including the 10th ICRS I attended four years later in Okinawa. The Bali meeting -the people I met there, what I learned- is when it became clear to me that studying coral reefs for the rest of my life would indeed be the most fulfilling profession. Fast forward 16 years, and I am living that dream to the fullest, as a coral reef ecologist for the Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program (CubaMar, http://www.cubamar.org/) of The Ocean Foundation. I am at the same time leveraging the amazing laboratory and analytical resources of the Institute of Marine Sciences of the University of California Santa Cruz, as an associate researcher, to carry out the lab work needed for our investigations on Cuban coral reefs.
The ICRS meeting last month, held in Honolulu, Hawaii, was also a bit of a homecoming. Prior to devoting myself to the relatively understudied and endlessly fascinating coral reefs of Cuba, I spent more than 15 years studying Pacific coral reefs. Many of those years were dedicated to exploring the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands archipelago, now called the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the boundaries of which the Pew Charitable Trust is currently petitioning for an expansion. They were in fact gathering signatures for this endeavor at the ICRS meeting last month (https://www.facebook.com/ExpandPMNM/). I signed their petition enthusiastically, and also had a chance to reminisce about many underwater adventures in that fascinating archipelago with former colleagues, collaborators and friends I ran into at the conference. Some I hadn’t seen for a decade or more, some were still based in Hawaii, others had moved on, and it was just great to catch up with everyone.
In a more uplifting talk later in the week, Dr. Jeremy Jackson reported on results from analyses spanning from 1970 to 2012 from the wider Caribbean, and determined instead that local stressors trump global stressors in this region… these results support the hypothesis that local protections can increase reef resilience in the short term pending global action on climate change. In his plenary talk, Dr. Peter Mumby of the University of Queensland reminded us about the “subtlety” in coral reefs. The cumulative effects of multiple stressors are reducing the diversity of reef environments, so that management interventions are targeted at reefs that no longer differ dramatically. Management actions have to adapt to said subtlety in coral reefs.
By Friday, the last day of the conference, I noticed that there were still thousands of people at the conference. Usually, by day 4 or 5 of any 5-day conference, lots of people start to drop out, some getting a head start to their long trips home, others preferring to take their last opportunity to check out a local MPA or surf spot. But at this conference attendance remained strong. The lionfish session on Friday was still pretty well attended. I was pleased to realize that the biotic resistance hypothesis, whereby native predators, by either competition or predation or both, are capable of maintaining the lionfish invasion in check, is still being actively debated. That’s what we tested in Jardines de la Reina MPA in southern Cuba during the summer of 2014 (http://www.cubamar.org/pez-leoacuten-the-lionfish-invasion-mitigation-project.html). It is interesting to learn it is still a timely question.
Compared to the first ICRS meeting I was able to attend in Bali in 2000, the 13th ICRS was equally as inspiring, but in a different way. Some of the most inspiring moments of this conference personally happened when I would run into some of the “elders” of coral reef science, who were prominent or plenary speakers at the 9th ICRS in Bali, and today I could still see a twinkle in their eye as they talked about their favorite corals, fish, MPAs, zooxanthellae, or the most recent El Niño. Some well past retirement age… but still having so much fun studying coral reefs. Who would want to do anything else?!