Read updates from Nature Conservancy scientist Alison Green as she plunged into unexplored waters in search of the planet’s richest coral reefs.
By Misty Herrin
Conservancy marine scientist Alison Green went on an odyssey at sea to uncover clues that will help the reefs of the Coral Triangle survive the impacts of climate change.
Green — The Nature Conservancy’s senior marine scientist in the Asia-Pacific region — and 15 other international and local experts undertook an exploration of the coral reefs that encircle Halmahera, an island on the eastern fringe of the scattered chain that makes up Indonesia.
Halmahera's reefs that have never before been charted by science — and the expedition's findings will drive conservation plans for this stunningly biodiverse area.
“We know that reef systems to the West and East of Halmahera harbor incredible biodiversity," says Green. "We definitely found something amazing, something worth saving.”
Green's personal journey to the expedition can be traced back to her roots on the shores of northeast Australia, where she spent family vacations poking around tide pools with her parents, marveling at the unusual creatures they saw there.
It was her first experience as a teenager amid the jaw-dropping wonder of the planet’s largest coral reef system that she says sealed her career path.
“I was in the water with my dad in the Great Barrier Reef and I was awestruck at the kaleidoscope of color and movement and shapes,” she says. “At one point, I was looking down at a huge rock – and then it swam away! I decided then that I wanted to work in coral reefs.”
That fascination drove Green to earn her doctorate in marine biology from the University of North Queensland and eventually landed her as the science director at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Green is now one of the Conservancy’s leading ecologists in the Coral Triangle — a region in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific so rich in coral reefs and fish species that it is called the epicenter of the planet’s marine biodiversity.
The Conservancy has been working with partners in the region for more than 15 years to protect this irreplaceable world wonder and the resources that support millions of people.
Green, who's the scientific team leader for the Conservancy on the expedition, sees the journey to Halmahera as a natural next step.
"We didn't know what we'd find," she says, "but we were confident the effort would be valuable. And we were right."
To conduct a multi-faceted ecological assessment, the group divided into teams. One assessed biodiversity in the reefs, while a team led by Green evaluated fish and coral communities, looking for clues to how robust the reefs are and how well they may be able to survive the impacts of climate change.
“We looked for where the healthy fish populations are because that tells us which areas should be prioritized for protection,” explains Green.
“For example, good concentrations of herbivore fish mean that coral species will have a better chance of bouncing back from bleaching, which can be caused by rising temperatures. Without plant eaters, algae can take over reef structures, crowding out native corals.”
A third team went ashore each day to gather information on how coastal communities use the food and other resources the reefs provide.
“We have to understand how local people depend on the reefs,” explains Green. “We have to take their needs into account and work closely with them to figure out ways to protect the resources they need. That’s the only way that biodiversity conservation can succeed over the long term.”
With the live-aboard boat as their floating headquarters, the teams struck out each day on carefully planned missions.
“We divided the target region into sections and coordinated our movements with each other,” says Green. “Each night we went over information about the section that we'd explore the following day. We revisited any maps, data and photos we had, and refined our plans for the next day.
"We set out in the early morning and usually do two dives per day, while the landing team goes ashore," she adds. "We’re all eager to hear what others discovered, so we gather on deck at sunset to share our findings.”
The results of this ecological assessment will likely have far ranging impacts on Conservancy efforts to preserve coral reefs — here and around the world.
“Our top priority right now is to continue refining how we design Marine Protected Areas to survive climate change, such as the one we helped develop in Kimbe Bay,” she says. “The Halmahera expedition will certainly further our ability to do that.”
That’s why Green will plunge into the Pacific, over and over again, to examine, catalogue and measure what she finds there.
“On a long survey like this there are days when you don’t want to get in the wet suit again, but the minute I hit the water, I’m reminded all over again why I love it and why I’m here,” she says excitedly. “If you ever get a chance to see a healthy reef, you have to do it. It’s one of the greatest experiences you can ever have.”
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February 28, 2011