A Gift from Juli Berwald: Life on the Rocks

With Life on the Rocks: Building a Future for Coral Reefs, Juli Berwald has done the world a huge favor. Drawing from hundreds of scientific papers, interviews with dozens of researchers, and visits to some of our planet’s most important reefs, she offers a narrative that renders an endlessly complex topic accessible. The summary, in three words: disturbing, informative, and hopeful.

Why disturbing? The world’s reefs suffer from many ills. While destinations like Bonaire, Belize, and the Cayman Islands continue to impress divers, those of us who first saw these places two and three decades ago cannot help but be distressed by what we witness today.Reef building corals are sick and dying, overgrown with algae. Two of the most striking common species, elkhorn and staghorn, have been decimated. Big groupers and snappers, as well as other edible reef fish, have grown scarce.  What once inspired delight now triggers sadness and a sense of loss. The reefs face an onslaught of rapidly warming water, ocean acidification, disease, nutrient and sediment runoff, increased frequency of storms, overfishing, and, well, a host of other evils.  As Berwald puts it with regard to the Florida Keys, “Thirty years ago, the Florida reef was a place so bountiful it would have been impossible to imagine its state of decline today.”

Why informative? The facts and figures of coral reefs can be found in sources ranging from textbooks to magazine articles, websites to on-line university courses, YouTube clips to high-end documentaries, but Berwald’s approach is unique. Early in the book, she describes the situation as a “wicked problem,” drawing not from the vernacular but from social planning theory originating in the 1960s.  For coral reefs, there is no single solution, any possible progress faces resistance from various human and natural quarters, there are uncountable interwoven moving parts, and no clear vision of success exists.  Berwald, a highly trained marine biologist as well as a writer, builds from this but thankfully shies away from the impossible task of sharing everything she knows. Instead, she zeroes in on the most relevant points.  But these points go far beyond what most of us would know beforehand. Example: While many understand that reefs rely on the relationship between the animals that we think of as corals and the symbiotic tiny alga that grow within them, few realize the degree to which the animal regulates nutrient supplies to it photosynthetic partners, managing its tiny internal garden. And before reading Berwald’s book, how many of us would appreciate the diversity of the alga itself? Another example: While the possibility of interbreeding between species is hardly newsworthy, most of us will be surprised to learn the degree to which corals interbreed and what that means for their survival in this troubled world.

Why hopeful?  It is easy to be pessimistic about the future of coral reefs, but Berwald convinces us that their future holds more “than an obituary.” As evidence, she cites impressive restoration efforts that are already underway, she visits coral gardens built by volunteer organizations, and she describes governmental, charitable, and private sector conservation programs that are up and running at locations in, for example, the Dominican Republic and Indonesia. Maybe more importantly, she presents research that shows promise for the future.  She reports on one scientist, a computer modeler, who tells her, “I cannot make them go extinct.” In his models, the diversity of corals and their ability to change as conditions change protects them from complete annihilation. Other researchers report progress on everything from understanding what is killing reefs to facilitation of their recovery.

I came to this book expecting the worst—not expecting a bad book, since I know Berwald as a writer from her earlier book, Spineless, about jellyfish—but expecting an elegy, a requiem. Happily, I left it feeling if not good at least better about reefs. And I left it grateful for what Berwald has offered, the gift of words that transformed my despair into a well-informed very cautious optimism. Despite my doubts, thanks to Berwald I now have hope for the world’s coral reefs.