Monday, August 25, 2008

Q&A with Brian Plankis of the Reef Stewardship Foundation

MarineDepot.com: For readers who are unfamiliar with you and the Reef Stewardship Foundation, can you tell us a little about yourself and your organization?

Brian Plankis, Reef Stewardship Foundation:
The Reef Stewardship Foundation's mission is to foster a diverse stewardship community that protects coral reefs through collaborative action, research, education and aquaculture initiatives. The RSF started in 2006 as Project DIBS with a handful of hobbyists interested in aquaculture of marine ornamentals and has grown into a diverse community of hobbyists, scientists, educators, aquaculturists, and supporters. Our main program areas focus on research efforts on breeding marine ornamentals in captivity, expanding aquaculture efforts by hobbyists, and improving science education related to ocean literacy. Every program area is focused on taking actions that can help reduce humanity's impact on rapidly declining coral reefs.

MD:
What made you choose "Investigating the International Year of the Reef and Coral Reef Decline" for your dissertation? Did the International Year of the Reef 2008 provide inspiration for your thesis or did you tie the two together after you'd further developed your idea?

BP:
The reason I chose to study the IYOR and coral reef decline was the very dire situation coral reefs face today and the limited action being taken to help save the reefs. There are some very good people taking action, but we need a lot more people personally engaged in reducing the environmental problems in order to have a chance at saving the reefs. My dissertation started in 2006, before I was aware of the IYOR, but was refined to use the best pieces of the IYOR effort.

MD: Marine aquarium hobbyists, specifically, the Marine Aquarium and Reef Society of Houston, helped conceptualize the Reef Stewardship Foundation. How involved are you in the hobby yourself? What kind of tanks are you yourself running? Any new products out that you're really excited about?

BP: The RSF started as Project DIBS and it would never have gotten off the ground without the support of hobbyists. We now have over 700 volunteers in 26 states and 10 countries, but without the initial support from both the Board of Directors and several dedicated hobbyists in MARSH, it is unlikely we would be where we are today. MARSH has continued their support with a generous donation that has allowed us to continue to grow the RSF and expand our aquaculture and education initiatives. Personally, I was a freshwater hobbyist for 7 years and have been a saltwater hobbyist for almost 6 years now. I prefer multiple tanks to larger tanks and currently keep a 100-gallon reef system composed of three tanks that holds broodstock for future research tanks. We plan on establishing a larger research lab for the RSF in 2009, but most of the tanks in the lab will be dedicated research or broodstock tanks. I do like to maintain at least one tank that is at least partially for fun so that I can relax when needed. As far as products, I am happy to see recent developments in live foods, energy efficient products, and affordable research equipment/materials. Nutritious live foods are absolutely critical to breeding marine animals, so the increased availability of copepods and live phytoplankton will really help us overcome some barriers to raising animals that have not been successfully bred in captivity before. With global warming being the number one threat to coral reefs, it is great to see a wide range of lights and pumps coming out that use very little electricity. Using less electricity lowers the cost for hobbyists and reduces the pollution caused by our tanks. The cost of microscopes and other lab equipment and materials that are needed for breeding marine animals, especially invertebrates, has dropped and is making small hobbyist research labs a reality.

MD:
How is the "Aquarium Experiment" coming along? Can you share your findings with us?

BP:
All the equipment is now in the classrooms, the coral fragments are ready, and the 200+ students will be setting up the tanks in the next 2-3 weeks. We will post periodic updates on our website until the end of the experiment in December. Once the students complete their data analysis then we will share the findings through our website, a series of peer-reviewed publications, and perhaps through a follow-up to this blog.

MD: How were we and other sponsors able to help you execute your vision?


BP: Being a young non-profit organization is a challenging proposition. Without support from Marine Depot and our other sponsors, most notably the Ocean Foundation, Current USA, and MARSH, it would not have been possible to properly fund and equip our aquarium experiment for the students. Our sponsors' generous donations and funding allowed us to operate with a tight budget and purchase additional equipment and textbooks that could not have been purchased otherwise. The end result is more meaningful research findings and student experiences. We hope to reuse most of the equipment for our aquaculture focus in 2009.

MD: What do you forsee happening with coral reef decline? How will your organization respond in the coming months/years?

BP:
I attended the 2008 International Coral Reef Symposium in Florida where the best minds in scientific research related to coral reefs get together and share their latest findings. The very clear message from the symposium was that coral reefs face a very uncertain future, with almost 1/3 of reef building corals facing elevated threat of extinction and this is probably a conservative estimate. The best science says we could see the loss of 60% of coral reefs by 2030 (roughly 27% are already gone!). Unless we take immediate and significant action in the next 10 years, there won't be much to save. It isn't too late to save some coral reefs, but we certainly need to get a lot of people taking action quickly. The RSF will be responding to this news through four main actions:

  1. We will increase our efforts to support hobbyists in breeding species that are considered conservation priorities.
  2. We will develop our research capability to provide peer-reviewed information on breeding marine ornamentals, with the hope of this knowledge being used by other organizations and hobbyists to increase the capacity and range of species kept in captivity.
  3. We will continue our education efforts with K-12 students to understand what the next generation already knows about coral reef decline and suggest possible ways to improve science education and ocean literacy.
  4. We have started a "taking action" section of our discussion forums where hobbyists, educators, and others can share the actions they have taken to help reduce coral reef decline.
MD: How large of an impact do you believe the marine aquarium hobby has made on these environments?

BP:
The marine aquarium hobby has had a wide range of impacts on coral reefs. In some cases it has little to no impact, but in other cases, such as the Banggai Cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni), collection for the hobby has resulted in an endangered species that faces extinction in the next few years. Over collection of ecologically important or slow growing/reproducing species has had a significant impact in some areas. Overfishing, both for the marine aquarium hobby and for the food industry, is one of the top three threats impacting coral reefs. Collection for the marine aquarium hobby has had an impact, I would say significant, but it is only one of many reasons for coral reef decline. One of the primary drivers for the creation of the RSF was to find ways to reduce that impact together and work with hobbyists to take action against the other threats to our reefs.

Photo/Image Credits
  • Healthy and Diseased Acropora, by Eric Borneman
  • Banggai Cardinalfish Baby, by Andrew Berry
  • All others courtesy of Brian Plankis