Meet the Speakers: Ruth Gates
Ruth Gates serves as the director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and as the president of the International Society for Reef Studies. She is featured as a principal cast member and science advisor in the Netflix documentary Chasing Coral.
1. When did you first fall in love with coral reefs?
I’ve wanted to be a marine biologist for a long time, but my attention was drawn to coral reefs, initially, by a lecturer at my university. I was doing an undergraduate degree in marine biology at a university in England and this coral reef biologist, Barbara Brown, really brought coral reefs alive through her own passion for the subject. We all have stories about teachers who have been highly influential in directing our lives. She was that person for me.
Things really hit home for me when I used to dive on this coral reef wall in Jamaica, called the Rio Bueno Wall. The reef was basically on the sharp edge of this wall and would go down beyond where you could see. I would swim out over a shallow reef and then, literally, almost fall off the edge of an underwater cliff. The coral there were just these huge plates with tons of fish and were absolutely, stunningly beautiful. That wall was destroyed in a two-week period as a result of a hotel complex being developed upstream on the land. It was devastating to watch that destruction unfold.
2. What do you think is the most critical impact that coral reef loss will have on humans?
Coral reefs are critical to our food supply. We estimate somewhere between 500 million and one billion people receive food from the reef at some point. Some island populations get up to 70% of their protein from the reef. For food security, the reef is an essential player.
The second, often less-discussed, service that reefs provide is coastal protection. They are living sea walls that diminish storm energy coming toward land. When the waves hit the reef, they break on the structure, but they don’t break on land, and they don’t erode the land that is immediately behind the reef. They are natural barriers and natural storm breaks. Also, it’s a structure that constantly replenishes itself.
Coral reefs are an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle that make up the picture of the planet. Once we start pulling pieces out of the jigsaw puzzle, how the planet will respond becomes less and less predictable.
3. How is the topic of coral reef loss relevant to people in Louisiana?
I think these problems of loss of habitats associated with deteriorating barriers and natural landscapes is something we really haven’t done justice in highlighting. Sometimes we make a human-made correction to a natural landscape that is driven by some sort of economic factor, and often those decisions are made by people who aren’t familiar with what the core function of that place landscape is or the risks associated with changing it versus leaving it alone. However, I think that now there is much more stakeholder engagement in those discussions and we’re correcting a lot of the problems that have occurred due to human-made changes to environments that were working really well and which, if we had just left them alone, would have been fine.
People in Louisiana are suffering from issues that relate to these changes in land management, and they have personal stories that should make them act to change the course of these issues. If they do that, it will have the end benefit of protecting our reefs.
4. What are the three most important things that you think students going into your field should know before they start?
The most important thing for success in any line of work is defining what you want to do. Not how you are going to do it or who is going to help you, but what is it that you, personally, want to accomplish? I think that’s something nobody asks you when you are a student.
Also, nothing can be accomplished alone. Working with groups of people who are like-minded will be massively important in terms of what you get done. Find people who have your same spirit and same desire, and work together to get to a bigger end point, because the sum of many parts is always bigger than the parts themselves.
5. What do you consider to be the most important aspect of your work? What is most important for the public to know about it?
Over the course of my career, I really had one central question, which is: why does one coral survive conditions that kill others?’
We are working on whether we can engineer coral that are able to withstand climate change and whether we can we use these “super corals” to build resilient central reefs that can withstand future ocean conditions. We go out onto the reef and look for the best performers on the reef today. We bring them into the lab and we put them through simulated future ocean conditions that stress them but don’t kill them. It gets them used to it. We also optimize their nutrition, and eventually, we breed them with other coral that have been through the same regime. We know we can exercise them and improve their performance. And, we know that improvement is passed on to the next generation, so that’s pretty exciting.
My lab is working on a new project with the University of Arizona using these super corals to design and build a reef in the Biosphere 2 Ocean. We hope to demonstrate that we can build a functional reef quickly and then see how well the reef performs when we manipulate the whole Biosphere 2 Ocean to become warmer and more acidic, representing future climate scenarios.