ICRS is a wrap!

Last week thousands of coral reef scientists descended on Honolulu for the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS), which happens only once every four years. The conference is an opportunity for students, researchers, and managers from around the world to gather in one place and talk about discoveries, problems, and solutions related to coral reef communities. Jam packed with festivities, talks, town halls, banquets, and poster sessions, the conference was a smashing success, and many thanks are owed to the coordinator of this years conference, UH’s own Dr. Bob Richmond. We even made it into the Huffington Post with an article bearing the unfortunate but accurate title “Corals are the sad story that can change the world.”

Bleaching at Lisianski Atoll in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. (PC: NOAA)

Many readers may be familiar with the horrific coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, where 93% of the reef suffered, or right here in Hawaiʻi, where even our most protected reefs in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument were vulnerable. You may not be familiar, however, with the fact that less well known but equally beautiful places, like Chagos Marine Reserve or the Seychelles, are also suffering due to major bleaching events. Tales of devastation were unavoidably peppered throughout the conference, but there were also many talks about recovery, resilience, and just downright exciting science!

Dr. Nick Graham of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies discussing recent coral bleaching in the Seychelles.

Yours truly was at the conference to present a poster on an analysis of specialization in herbivorous reef fishes throughout the Pacific that was conducted using data from NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (thank you!) as well as an extensive literature review. If you’ve never presented a poster before, it’s a great way to get feedback from colleagues and experts without the stage fright associated with giving a presentation to a crowded room full of people!

Me presenting my poster!

Some folks in the Donahue Lab handled the stage like champs though, despite the crowds! Katie Lubarsky shared the work that she’s done for her Masters thesis in Maunalua Bay on the effects of groundwater on coral growth, and she’ll be presenting the full finished product at her defense in just two weeks!

Donahue Lab member, Katie Lubarsky, gearing up to wow the audience with her presentation.

Dr. Megan Ross, friend of the Donahue Lab, presented some of the work that she did for her PhD and did a great job of explaining geographically weighted regressions and their use in visualizing spatially variable relationships. Her work was done in the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area on Maui, a site that has been the focus of many projects in the past years. Dr. Ivor Williams of CRED and Dr. Emily Kelly of Scripps Institute of Oceanography also gave great talks about the area’s road to recovery after seven years of herbivore protection.

Dr. Megan Ross presenting to a rapt audience.

Molly Timmers, another friend of the Donahue Lab, gave a great presentation about the data that has been collected from the Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) deployed throughout the Pacific. She even got a shout out from Dr. Nancy Knowlton during her plenary talk about the work being done through this and other projects! In addition, we heard great talks by Drs. Jack Kittinger, Terry Hughes, Howard Choat, David Bellwood, Tim McClanahan, Peter Mumby, and so many more!

Dr. Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institute giving her plenary address.


Dr. Ruth Gates addressing some of the concerns expressed by colleagues about her novel approach to marine conservation during her plenary speech.

While there were many stories of hope and encouragement shared at ICRS, such as Dr. Ruth Gates’ lab’s work on “super corals”, there was an undeniably somber tone regarding the plight of coral reefs worldwide. ʻAulani Wilhelm, who now works for Conservation International, gave an inspiring plenary talk about the powerful collaborations and partnerships that led to the creation, preservation, study, and potentially even expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The slide below from her presentation echoes what was for me one of the most powerful take home messages from ICRS. The research going on in this field right now is incredible and exciting, but it’s naive to think that more data alone will address the mounting stressors that reefs are facing around the world. Rather, the way forward is going to necessitate an interdisciplinary response that includes scientists, community members, and very importantly, policy makers working together. This will in turn require a commitment to conservation above personal gains, collaboration in place of competition, and as ʻAulani put it, shared credit – always!