Coral Cartography Advances Conservation

Considered among the most complex and diverse environments on Earth, coral reefs play a key role in the health of our planet’s oceans. Pollutants, algae blooms, over-fishing, damage due to development and mooring are well known threats to their own health and recent changes in the global climate are causing additional stresses, including a rise in water temperature and acidity. The result is a further decimation of the existing reefs and the creatures that underpin the ocean’s food web.

Most of our knowledge about coral reefs and benthic habitats is based on monitoring data gathered through a range of methods, mostly reef surveys, varying from rapid monitoring by trained volunteers to highly detailed, species level observations. However, these surveys provide little, if any, information on adjacent benthic habitats, such as sea grass beds or hard bottom, and more importantly, fail to appropriately address and document the spatial component of the marine ecosystem. While coral reef mapping in itself is not new, most of these maps may differentiate shallow from mixed reef areas, but they do not provide further detail, nor do they include adjacent areas of sea grass beds or other benthic habitats.

Caring for coral reefs, however, is dependent on us knowing far more about these extraordinary benthic environments and the associated ecosystems they host, and the establishment of baseline data against which future assessments of ocean health can be measured.

To generate maps of coral reefs, we have used aerial and satellite imagery, remote sensing and ArcGIS, and on-site field-surveys combined with the marine habitat classification framework defined by the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and the National Oceanography and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Habitat Conservation, which provides for the distinction of community types and density variations therein.

The image shows a highly precise map of the marine area surrounding Peterson Cay that discerns different habitat types from bare ocean floor to algae, sea grass, and coral reef, highlights density variations in each, and pinpoints the exact location of individual species of interest such as the endangered Elkhorn coral.

The ArcView software allows us to determine with impressive precision the spatial expansion of each marine habitat across the study site. As it turns out, coral reef, in its various expressions of density covers 208 acres, sandy bottom with various degrees of sea grass spread out over 263 acres, and areas of hard pad, with algae (generally red and brown algae) of one degree or another covered 209 acres. It is worth emphasizing though that the density of algae coverage in two-third of these areas is less than 10%.

Being able to accurately locate individual corals or territorial fish species is essential for successful management and conservation programs. For instance, observations of the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish (Pterois volitans), which poses a significant risk to native species, can be charted on the map facilitating its capture and eradication. Having a visual representation of the entire reef, or a number of reefs stretched out across a larger area, is the best means in determining where to install fixed monitoring devices, such as sedimentation traps. The comprehensive understanding of spatial features across the reef will also facilitate the identification of additional dive sites suitable for commercial scuba operators. Increasing the number of dive sites will alleviate the pressure of those currently used every day by multiple groups. Marking mooring sites adjacent to shallow reefs will help avoid reef damage caused by boat traffic and anchors. Last but not least, knowing the exact location, dimension and composition of the reefs will help develop sustainable land use plans for coastal projects that benefit from these natural jewels rather than harming or destroying them.

By documenting the actual environmental conditions, we are able understand the relationship between different habitat types and the larger reef ecosystem as well as monitor expansions or declines of certain habitats. Conducting similar studies on adjacent reefs will eventually lead to a larger-scale map and a deeper understanding of both local and regional reef ecosystems and their processes.

Although this new mapping technology doesn’t necessarily represent the natural state of any ecosystem, it can at least provide a baseline against which we can compare future observations, thus establishing a powerful framework for conservation and management. And that’s what the map of Peterson Cay’s coral reef will do. By combining traditional observational recordings with precise spatial information, it provides new insight into the fascinating world just below the water’s surface.


We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

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Quo Tendimus

The scope of the problems we are currently facing can be illustrated with catchwords such as global warming, sea level rise, soil degradation, potable water shortages, and the loss of species and biotope diversity. It is obvious that an ecologically focused structural change is needed. The adaptive capacity of the economic and social systems, and the confined possibilities of using the environment, must be considered.

Too many people still believe that the future will be much like the past, with the task of avoiding disaster falling to markets and technologies. But think about this: the earth is stable; it does not grow. The input of the sun likewise remains constant. Much of the wealth, derived from that input and stored over tens of millions of years in fossil fuels, has already been consumed in less than two centuries. No technology in the world can alter this equation.

Obviously, our activities, especially all-harvesting of natural resources, has tremendous impact on the ecosystem. But there is also a widespread consensus that non-sustainable harvesting, and causing the extinction of species, is ethically unacceptable and unjustifiable. And we all need nature; for food, health and scientific innovation, the prevention of floods, droughts and epidemics, and of course we need wild places, animals and plants for recreation, renewal, and inspiration.

Our steadily narrowing spectrum of consumed products from agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and the concentration on a few economically valuable species, has resulted in a specialization of land and marine food harvesting systems. Combined with the conversion of habitats, these are prime causes of species loss within any particular ecosystem. The greatest problem may be the illusion that subtle changes in course direction could guide us towards a good life that will include both a ‘conserved’ nature and cozy shopping malls.

It may be useful to realize that we are dealing with the conservation of Man in nature, which requires us take Man’s cultural identity into consideration as well. If people are denied their culture, nature and the environment will also suffer. Cultural diversity must be considered part of biodiversity, and like other aspects of biodiversity, cultural diversity helps people adapt to changing conditions.

I believe, given the complexity of the challenges, only a cross-disciplinary approach with a very close and intense collaboration between science, business and all other stakeholders promises to fulfill our hopes for a better, common future. Corporations, being the dominant institutions on the planet, must squarely address the social and environmental problems that affect mankind. Science must provide the information needed to make sensible choices and decisions. Together they must rewrite economics texts and fine-tune the notion of sustainability, as only then can they create an enduring society with a system of commerce and production where each and every act is inherently sustainable and restorative.  Where economics, biology, and human systems are integrated and profitable, and expandable companies created that do not destroy, directly or indirectly, the world around them.

A scientist is primarily concerned with understanding the world. That commitment must, in turn, lead to the scrutiny of some aspects of nature in great empirical detail. The reward comes at the split second of time when something new has been learned.  The results need then to be communicated in a timely and comprehensible fashion, so that knowledge is expanded, and trust and confidence prevail.

            A corporate leader is primarily concerned with quarterly earnings and shareholder equity, often forsaking the curiosity for new things and foresight of a long-term time line.  As Dow Chemical manager Fussler said in an interview many years ago, corporate leaders have to re-direct their thinking, away from short-term costs arguments, into new directions, including the invention of products that are completely different from what we know today. In fact, we need to re-discover a horizon, one that goes beyond a single generation, one that ensures that our actions are based on knowledge and not on public opinion, polls or junk science. And we need to subordinate the present-day advantage under the long-term necessity of the future.  In the words of Charles F. Kettering, ‘We should all be interested in the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there’.


We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.


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Sustainable Development and Biodiversity

Today, the internationally acknowledged basis for agreements on environmental protection, resource management, and conservation, consists of the principles of sustainable development and the maintenance of biodiversity. The concept of sustainable development is based on the realization that the conditions for economic activities will continue to deteriorate in the future, if the natural resources underlying these activities continue to be destroyed at the present rate.

By exploiting non-renewable raw materials, we consume resources as if making withdrawals from a limited saving account, without making deposits. At the same time, our species is using renewable resources above and beyond their regeneration capacity.  The earth’s limited absorption capacity is overtaxed by emissions and waste volumes, leading to consequential ecological costs, which can no longer be ignored. A discussion about the fundamental rules involved in our economies is tantamount to a renaissance of nature as a factor in the production-function concept.

The supplies of resources, and the absorption of residuals, both prerequisites for economic activities, are to be seen as irreplaceable functions of nature. The preservation of the capital stock (= natural resources) is a key element of sustainable development. Unlike current approaches, this capital stock should at least be kept at a constant level to prevent future generations from suffering from shortages of natural resources or a deterioration of environmental quality. First and foremost, sustainable development means preserving the vital functions of the environment, including the potential for change, evolution and self-regulation.

Biodiversity is meant to be all-inclusive; it is the genetic-based variation of living organisms at all levels. It includes the world’s millions of species and the ecological systems they live in, ranging from Polar Regions with relatively few species, to the tropics with their great abundance of different life forms. Conserving biodiversity provides us with at least three domains of benefit:

  1. Maintenance of our ecosystems in healthy condition
  2. Source of new pharmaceuticals, crops, fibers etc., all holding economic value
  3. ‘Biophilia’, which is a term used by E.O. Wilson to describe the natural affiliation humans have for the natural environment

In the words of paleontologist Niles Eldredge, it is our failure to recognize our connection with the global ecosystem that lies behind the biodiversity crisis facing our planet. We have to recognize that biological diversity is part of our heritage and is incomparably older and more complex than anything else.

Our own single species, out of the 5-30 million species that exist today, consumes nearly half of the total produce from land-based ecosystems, and 25% of all plant energy from the land and sea combined. Today there are less than 1 million elephants, but 100 million cattle on earth.  These numbers do not reflect intrinsic worthiness, but rather developed usefulness. And yet, we must confront the demographic realities honestly, if we hope to preserve biodiversity, achieve a sustainable development, and to prevent a massive Sixth Extinction.

Although it may be impossible to determine the exact rate of extinction, estimates are that about 27,000 species are lost each year, which means that three species are lost forever every hour. It is also commonly accepted that there is a relationship between habitat loss and species numbers. Reducing a habitat’s original size by 10% is expected to eventually lead to the numbers of species inhabiting that area dropping by half. Every species that disappears is a loss of evolutionary potential.  Human-caused extinction is up between a thousand and ten thousand times over what it was before humans came to Earth. This is far in excess of the rate at which new species are being created.  So again, we are quickly running out of the capital that took many millions of years to create.


We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

Read more