Sara E. Cannon, PhD

Aquatic Conservation Scientist

Dispatch from the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium

You might imagine a group of scientists coming together to discuss the current state of the world’s coral reefs would be a depressing affair, considering the myriad of challenges reefs are facing. You would be right, but only partially. There was a lot of gloom and doom at the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium – coral bleaching, overfishing, eutrophication, and ocean acidification dominated many of the conversations – but still, hope persevered.

Over the course of the week, we heard from marine scientists, managers, social scientists, climatologists, and experts from almost any field you could think of. Climate change, warming sea surface temperatures, and ocean acidification were prevalent themes. It was reiterated again and again that we must do something to curb global emissions. But, we also heard about studies of coral reefs that appear to be thriving, despite the odds. Hannah Barkley from Woods Hole shared her research about reefs in Palau that appear healthy, even though the waters they call home are highly acidic. Joshua Cinner from James Cook University identified a number of coral reefs (mostly in the Pacific) that are doing better than expected, 2/3 of which are in populated areas. One only has to visit the hashtag #oceanoptimism on Twitter for scores of examples of things that are working.

Another prevalent theme was the importance of community-based management approaches, and integrating cultural considerations into our work. Community leaders from Hawaii, Australia, Micronesia, and the Caribbean shared what the ocean means to them, how knowledge has been passed from previous generations and their hopes for passing knowledge on to future generations. We were all repeatedly encouraged to sign a petition to President Obama asking him to expand Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM), which focuses on the cultural significance of the reserve in addition to protecting natural resources. If Obama decides to expand it, PMNM would become the largest marine reserve in the world.

This guy asked me to sign a petition urging Obama to expand the Papahanaumokuakea Marine Reserve. How could anyone possibly say no to a shark playing the ukulele?


There is no doubt that the world’s coral reefs are in rough shape, but I still left ICRS with a feeling of hope. And, when all else fails, Peter Mumby gave some excellent advice during his plenary talk: just go jump in the ocean.


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