NYUAD Professor Highlights Plight of Coral Reefs

John Burt, Associate Professor of Biology, NYU Abu Dhabi.

"There is much concern in marine science that coral reefs are reaching their 'tipping point'," said John Burt, marine biologist and NYU Abu Dhabi assistant professor of practice of biology, "when anthropogenic activities will push reefs from being diverse areas dominated by corals to low-diversity, low-abundance ecosystems dominated instead by algae."

Such is the focus of Burt's latest paper — coauthored with four other scientists — which discusses the devastating impacts that algal blooms (such as red tide) can have on reef coral and fish communities.

Using the Gulf of Oman for their studies, the scientists discovered in 2008 that a large-scale algal bloom measuring more than 500 square kilometers practically decimated the coral and substantially reduced the "abundance, richness and trophic diversity of the associated coral reef fish communities." And while the threat hits close to home, Burt explained that this only demonstrates the emerging threat to reefs worldwide. "Our prediction," he said, "is that such events will occur with increasing frequency in the coming decades."

So what can be done to reduce or stop the spread of these harmful algal blooms? Because it is suspected that the algae is being transported in ship ballast water — molecular work by Burt's colleagues has indicated that the species that caused the red tide in Fujairah was closely related to a strain occurring in the eastern United States and Malaysia — ships "would need to be fitted with chemical or mechanical systems to sterilize the water," said Burt. "However, the success of such systems will rely very heavily on the regulations and compliance mechanisms that are in place, and managing this will be incredibly complex in this region as a result of the high volume and global nature of ship traffic."

Unfortunately, there are other environmental pressures wreaking havoc on coral reef communities and their ecosystems. According to Burt, coastal development and climate change "are already taking their toll." As discussed in a number of his papers — including Fish communities on the world's warmest reefs: What can they tell us about impacts of a climate change future? and The growing need for sustainable ecological management of marine communities of the Persian Gulf — these environmental threats are all too real. "Recent estimates indicate that a fifth of all coral reefs have been effectively lost as a result of such activities, and a further third are categorized as threatened," said Burt. "Given their biological and economic importance, this concerns me."

On a personal level, Burt worries that his young daughter will not have the opportunity to experience the beauty of the reefs, something he fell in love with after a diving course 12 years ago. Since then he hasn't looked back.