The International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS), is the largest gathering of coral reef researchers near and far. It happens every four years (which in my opinion is too long) and is always somewhere tropical (yay for us!). The conference is a week long and every waking second is jam-packed with content; all science, all day - 8AM to 8PM. Everyone that attends this conference loves corals and everything the reef system has to offer, which makes the meeting all that more exciting. You are surrounded by people that easily geek out about anything coral related and are genuinely interested and engaged in any conversation around the topic! To me, I felt at home...
Of course, most of us know the crisis facing coral reefs worldwide, and to the researchers and organizations attending this conference, it was the big elephant in the room. All of our data sets, all of the endless hours of counting bleached colonies, all of the images, and all of the stories presented showed that coral reefs are currently threatened by ocean warming. Even though we all know what's happening, it was heart breaking to admit that corals are in trouble. To be honest, I teared up in more than one talk...
The theme of the conference was "Science and Policy", and for me it was really exciting as I am interested in both those things. Throughout the entire week, I was bouncing back and forth between academic talks and talks focusing on management and policy. It was exciting to hear about the state of the art research that is taking us closer and closer to understanding just how corals may be able to adapt to the changing climate. One talk in particular that stood out me, was given by some researchers at the Australian Institute for Marine Science. They talked about this term "assisted evolution" and the techniques they were using to create hybrids of coral species to help increase thermal tolerance. It was incredibly fascinating to see just how technology has advanced and to discuss the potential of creating a new genotype that may in fact survive well into the future. Other talks discussed advances in knowledge about coral species transcriptomes, the microbiome, the symbiont genome, and how this all plays into our understanding of how corals are going to respond in the coming years. It was encouraging to see that researchers may be close to the answer of how corals are going to keep themselves thriving.
It was also exciting to hear how policy-makers and managers around the world are actually creating change in their respective countries. In Australia, they discussed the Reef 2050 Plan and how it incorporates not only the ecological aspect of the reef, but the human dimension as well. They focused on ways to increase resilience on the reef and how they are becoming more willing to experiment with adaptive management strategies. In the United States, there are instances of collaborative management along the Florida Reef Tract. Community planning programs like "Our Florida Reefs" represent diverse interests and allow for collaborative efforts between scientists, public, reef users, business owners - you name it. These types of opportunities bring everyone to the same table to help organize and coordinate methods of protecting the reef. It's cases like this that give me such hope - hope that corals will bounce back and that we can help them get there.
The most interesting part of the conference for me was the conversation about how to incorporate these two aspects: science into policy and management and vise versa. Science is awesome and it's great to generate data that helps us understand how corals are surviving and thriving, but, to me, it means nothing if we can't incorporate it into long lasting applications of management or policy. Throughout the week, I went to talks and plenaries about this vary topic. The first discussion that struck me was about how we can use genomics to better coral reef management. Renowned genomicists and managers gathered to discuss how they see genomics being incorporated into coral restoration projects or in determining which reefs to manage. Essentially, genomics should be used as a tool and as one scientist put it "genomics is the clinical diagnosis, not the surgery". Even though the conversation took place, and there were some great points thrown around, the question still remained: HOW?! How can we do this, how can we make this collaborative effort worthwhile? In my opinion, we need to start blurring the lines a bit more between scientists and manager and really start getting at the nitty gritty details of how!
The second discussion was held on the final day of the conference. Ruth Gates, an incredibly accomplished coral reef biologist and one of my scientific idols, gave the final talk of the conference and she really started to provide concrete examples of ways to answer how. Her talk really jolted me, and made me realize just how special this coral reef community is. She talked about just how the data we are generating can provide hints about what to do next, ways to APPLY the data to solutions. She talked about progress, that even though the challenge that lies ahead may be daunting, we see progress in our efforts already. She talked about ways that science has already complemented solutions and how we can continue to build resilience capacity through these solutions. She called each and everyone of us to do something, to think about ways we can blur those lines and come together to provide concrete answers and solutions.
In the end, the decision comes to us - how are we going to generate change and how are we going to help corals survive. Can we even? Well, it's worth a try and if I took anything away from that conference, it's that each one of us would be damned if we didn't at least try....
I'm a PhD Student at Oregon State University, studying coral reef thermal acclimation and tolerance. I use genomics and genetics to understand how corals are going to respond to future conditions with the onset of ocean warming.