Connecting the Dots Between Corals and Humans

Ocean Shorts: Episode 19

Hanauma Bay, Oahu

NOAA closely monitors coral health near U.S. states and territories with high densities of coral reefs. Part of this long-term scientific study involves better understanding the humans who live near and rely upon these reefs.


HOST: This is Ocean Shorts from NOAA's National Ocean Service. I'm Troy Kitch. Coral reefs are under intense pressure from climate change, pollution, and unsustainable use. So what can we do about it? To answer that question, we need to better understand the main threat to our reefs. The following is an excerpt from a longer interview we posted back in March 2016 with NOAA social scientists Maria Dillard and Peter Edwards. NOAA scientists are monitoring corals, coral ecosystems, and how climate is affecting corals … but they're also researching the biggest factor that impacts our reefs: humans. Peter, could you talk a bit about why there's a need to better understand this connection between people and coral reefs?

PETER EDWARDS: So the physical changes that you may be observing in our coral reef systems may be directly or indirectly linked to people. We're very good in NOAA as an agency monitoring some of these biological and physical changes over time. But it's important for us to make this connection because we could be tracking changes, and if we're not linking them to people's behavior, we may just be ending up watching things change. People depend on the reefs and also people get value from the reefs. Sometimes people may not necessarily be aware of the connection that they have with the reefs, so understanding the level of awareness is also important because it can then help managers and conservation agencies such as NOAA to provide information and to craft better ways to highlight these connections between people and reefs. So understanding the connection of people's perceptions is important, understanding how they're participating in the reef resources, and how these activities may be stressing or impacting these reefs, or there may be beneficial behaviors that people are conducting and it's important to know this so that we can share these stories with other people.

HOST: Maria, what kind of questions are you trying to answer with your research?

MARIA DILLARD: We are very interested in understanding the current status of human knowledge, of our attitudes and perceptions about coral reefs, but also the marine environment. We want to understand how people think about the marine environment, how they understand the issues that are of concern at the moment, and how they perceive themselves in relation to these things. Also, we're really interested in understanding how humans use the environment. How they interact with coral reefs, how they interact with the ocean, and how dependent they are. So one of the big questions for social scientists is to get a really strong sense of the reliance on the resources. We want to understand how communities are dependent on the resources. And we understand also that not all communities are. Not all communities are surviving based on the fish that they're catching or on the industries that are based on the marine environment. But there's a lot to get to beyond some of that initial level of people who are subsisting based on resources, to what are the other connections that populations have. So what are the cultural connections people have to the coral reefs and the environment around them? What are the social values that come into play ? How does the environment figure in to important festivals and cultural events that people have as a gathering space for community events and parties.

HOST: So what has your research turned up so far?

MARIA DILLARD: In all of our jurisdictions, we are seeing an overwhelming positive response towards a variety of management options that are being taken or that are potential management strategies to deal with protecting the coral reef ecosystem and the marine environment. Managers and politicians and others working on these issues always feel like people respond negatively to areas of closure or reduced access, or to zoning a space so that only particular activities can take place in certain areas, to the existence of marine protected areas. And, overall, we're finding that the general population actually feels pretty positively about these things. One thing that we're noticing is that the more people favor different management options, the more familiar with threats to reefs they are. So one reason that we might be seeing a very strong connection between people being in support of management may be that they're very aware of the threats to coral reefs and they're concerned. This is something that we hope is true and that we want to investigate further.

HOST: This is just a short segment of a really good interview — check our show notes for the link to our full podcast about the social side of coral reefs. This is Ocean Shorts from NOAA's National Ocean Service. Thanks for listening.