Conference Sideshows: A Reporter’s Notebook

posted in: September 2006 | 0

Like an all-you-can-eat buffet for the brain, the 2006 Hawai`i Conservation Conference offered more than anyone could possibly take in. Our articles discuss at length several of the topics served up. Here are a few of the more interesting side dishes.

Most Innovative Use of a Feminine Product: Runner-up in this category goes to Douglas Okamoto, a staffer with the state’s Natural Area Reserve System who explained his innovation in a poster. Okamoto came up with the idea of using short lengths of nylon stockings to hold seedlings of the endangered plant Schiedea kaalae in place on cracks and crevasses on cliff faces at the Pahole Natural Area Reserve on O`ahu. Before this innovation, Okamoto explained, a heavy power augur was used to drill holes in the rock to accept the plants. With the use of a much lighter, smaller rivet gun, panty-hose slings can be attached to the cliff faces, allowing workers to plant many more (and smaller) seedlings each time they go into the field.

First place goes to Roberta Swift, who described how she and co-workers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center in Hilo attempted to calculate the dose of citric acid that a Hawaiian hoary bat might receive if it were roosting in a coqui-control area. Not wanting to douse bats directly, they hung “bat effigies” (a.k.a. OB-GYN tampons) in trees in advance of spraying and then weighed them to determine the amount of citric acid that the effigies received.

The effigies – complete with a loop of string allowing for easy hanging – were similar to bats in size and weight, and even shape, if you imagine a roosting bat with its wings folded close to its body. Swift and her team found that on average, the effigies were exposed to 1.5 grams of citric acid, though the dose decreased with height. No information exists on whether citric acid is toxic to the bats, but unless the bats groomed their fur, the exposure pathway was pretty limited, they found. What’s more, bats may not roost at levels low enough to receive the heftiest doses.

Swift and her co-workers also put native plants in areas sprayed with citric acid to learn how they tolerated coqui treatment. They found that there was significant leaf damage to native plants. Although few died outright, some “looked like they wished they were dead,” she said.

Would You Bio-Rock From This Man? Thomas Goreau was one of the featured speakers at the conference, taking the podium not once, not twice, but three times. He gave a plenary address at the opening of the conference, where he laid out a scenario for future global warming and sea level rise as dire as anything yet published. Not to worry, though, he assured his listeners. He would present solutions the following evening, at a public lecture. Friday afternoon he made a few closing remarks to those who still remained in the audience after two and a half jam-packed days.

Goreau is president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, based in Cambridge, Mass. His resumé is lengthy and boasts numerous awards and degrees from distinguished institutions. Yet his public lecture on ways to save coral reefs from the most damaging effects of global warming left some in the audience a little puzzled. Not only did Goreau discount the value of marine reserves, stating that most of the protected areas are dying, if not already dead; he also dismissed any notion that international treaties might hold out hope, calling the Kyoto protocol a “death warrant for reefs” and describing it and other treaties as “scientific nonsense” and “dishonest.” Then Goreau unveiled his secret to protecting and rebuilding coral reefs: Biorock™, a process to which he and a partner hold the patent and which is licensed to the Global Coral Reef Alliance. By erecting what look like Jungle Gyms of rebar, placing them in areas optimal for reefs, and hooking them up to a low electrical current, Goreau says, the process of reef-building can be accelerated many times over natural growth rates. Goreau’s presentation showed dozens of photographs of such structures in various stages of coral growth – from the early days, when broken fragments of corals are tied to the structure, to well into the growth period, with eels, small reef fish, and the whole panoply of reef flora and fauna on display.

By the end of the evening, the audience of mostly scientists was puzzled, unsure whether they had been given the keys to the (coral) kingdom or had been treated to a sales pitch for snake oil. David Burney of the National Tropical Botanical Garden asked the question on many people’s mind: Was Goreau able to support his claims with any published, peer-reviewed studies?

No, Goreau replied. Though he had applied for funds to carry out research, he had been unsuccessful in winning the necessary grants. Still, he said, he had a hypothesis about why the Biorock™ structures were so phenomenally successful: the electrical current created local changes in water chemistry that allowed limestone deposits to form quickly on the rebar. The same process gave a leg up to reef-building corals as well, allowing them to build calcareous structures with minimal energy. The metabolic boost given by the electrical current, Goreau said, was probably what allowed the corals to weather stressing events – such as high temperatures and disease – without suffering harm to the same degree that occurs to corals without the Biorock™ benefit.

Robert Richmond, a reef expert and research professor at the University of Hawai`i’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory, said there was little doubt that if you put electrical current through a reef structure, it would enhance the calcification process. However, he questioned whether at times reef restoration was helpful if the underlying causes of its decline – such as non-point source pollution or dynamite fishing – were not addressed. The question that needs to be asked in advance of any restoration project, he said, is: “Are you treating the symptom or the underlying disease?”

In the case of Goreau’s Biorock™, Richmond said, “There’s some really good potential there. Goreau has demonstrated that his process can form a substratum corals and fish can recruit to. But it’s no silver bullet until we address fundamental causes of reef degradation.”

While restoration may be useful in particular cases, Richmond said, “it’s a matter of understanding scale and reality. Would our resources be better spent on watershed restoration, educating fishers, or reef restoration?”

Richmond did not share Goreau’s bleak outlook on international treaties or his view of coral reefs globally as already dead or dying. “There are things that can be done, even if we’re not going to solve global warming today.”

Art Appreciation: A new feature of the 2006 conference was a display of art depicting or inspired by native plants and animals. The exhibit was organized by Betsy Gagné of the Natural Area Reserves System, a member of the conference steering committee.

Much of the exhibit was given over to the knock-out photographs of the flora and fauna of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands taken by Susan Middleton and David Liitschwager and published in their new work Archipelago.

Local artists represented in the show included several well-known in the conservation community for their talent, such as Jack Jeffrey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and bird photographer extraordinaire, Richard Palmer, a botanist whose photo-etching of a silversword graced the catalog cover, and Ron Walker, a retired state wildlife biologist and illustrator.

Several of those showing their art are well known for their conservation work, but newcomers to the art world. Melissa Chimera, a botanist working on Maui, has recently begun devoting most of her time to her art. Her large canvas of an `ohawai was breathtaking.

Vincent Hazen, trained in biology but now working full-time as an artist in Honolulu, was represented with “Trojan Horse,” shimmery, haunting screen-print images of Captain Cook’s ship The Endeavor flocked with sugar and rat poison, and “Pineapple,” an image of the fruit made of fruit flies.

— Patricia Tummons

Volume 17, Number 3 September 2006

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