“It’s the ultimate win-win. If we can improve public health and save coral reefs ... well, that would be a dream come true for me.”
— Steph Wear
Marine scientist Stephanie Wear is on a conservation mission: to save coral reefs and, at the same time, improve the lives of the people living in coastal areas.
“I know this is ambitious, but we need to be ambitious,” she says. “I’ve been working in coral reef conservation for 15 years, and it’s become clear to me that the future of coral reefs is very uncertain.”
Overfishing, ocean acidification, warming seas, pollution — all have contributed to a massive decline in coral reefs in recent years. Wear and other experts fear that without urgent action, the world could lose 70% of its coral reefs by 2050.
Wear has witnessed this precipitous decline in coral reefs over her career. Since joining The Nature Conservancy in 2001, she has worked on the front lines of coral reef conservation — leading training programs, working on community-based management efforts, and collaborating with a broad range of partners.
All this work has made a difference — but not enough, she says.
“At best we are simply slowing the decline. Something more innovative is needed,” says Wear.
As a NatureNet Science Fellow, Wear will be exploring an innovative idea that she hopes will make the difference for coral reefs and also help people, too — improved water quality.
Most coral reef conservation has focused on what’s going on in the ocean, rather than on land. A key strategy for protecting reefs has been the implementation of marine protected areas (MPAs), which help address problems like overfishing. But land-based activities are the primary source of pollutants in the sea — agricultural run-off, land development, and poor sanitation are the primary culprits.
Wear’s approach is to look beyond what’s happening in the water. She hopes to fill a research void by bringing a focus to land-based sources of pollution. Her primary target? Sewage.
“I don’t know of a tropical island on this planet that doesn’t have some level of a sewage problem,” she says. “In many Pacific island nations, the ocean is the toilet.”
Human sewage in waterways is a known public health problem. But sewage spilling into marine areas is often overlooked and a huge problem for coral reefs, too. One recent study showed that a pathogen from human sewage is causing white pox disease in elkhorn corals in the Caribbean Sea, where elkhorns have declined by nearly 90% in the past decade.
Wear’s work as a NatureNet Fellow will explore this intersection of human sewage as a problem for both people and corals. She is pursuing her Ph.D in marine sciences with a research focus on identifying strategies that simultaneously promote coral and human health. Her long experience in the field and considerable connections will allow her to develop a network through which these solutions can be shared.
“By identifying these ‘bright spots’ in sewage treatment and water quality management, both people and coral reefs benefit,” says Wear.
Moreover, Wear sees the clear connection between people’s health and coral reef health as an entry point to making a strong case for linking the disparate fields of public health and environmental conservation.
There are many charitable groups already trying to solve the public health problem of sewage, she notes — for instance, the Gates Foundation is working on new technologies for no-flush toilets. Wear hopes to integrate an environmental perspective to these public health initiatives.
“It’s the ultimate win-win,” she says. “If we can improve public health and save coral reefs by integrating the research and technologies happening across these fields… well, that would be a dream come true for me.”