Ocean Currents

An Interview with Coral Reef Expert Danielle Dixson

coral reef in fiji

There are some new champions for corals in the nation’s capital. Hawaii’s Senator Hirono and Representative Takai have proposed legislation supporting competitions that encourage innovation among scientists, engineers and coastal managers to develop new and effective ways to keep U.S. coral ecosystems and their neighboring human communities healthy and sustainably managed. We asked tropical reef ecosystem expert Danielle Dixson from the University of Delaware to share her thoughts on what this legislation means for coral reefs, the animals living there, and the people who rely on them.

OC: Tell us about your coral reef research and what inspires you to spend your days studying the ocean.

DD: My research seeks to understand how marine animals sense their environment, how they are able to use this information to make decisions on optimal habitat choice or predator avoidance, and the consequences these behavior changes have on marine conservation and management in a changing world. My research group has a particular interest in ocean acidification’s impacts on the behavior of marine organisms.

OC: Senator Hirono (D-HI) and Representative Takai (D-HI) have just introduced bills in Congress that establish prize competitions aimed at finding creative management solutions for coral reefs facing ocean acidification and the communities that depend on them. How might this legislation benefit reefs like the ones you study?

DD: Ocean acidification is a global problem, and therefore any measure that supports understanding future conditions or reducing the impact expected to happen in the future will benefits reefs worldwide. The bill’s specific emphasis on ocean acidification is particularly important as coral reefs are threatened by a number of human-induced changes such as overfishing, pollutants and rising water temperatures. Many of these threats can be understood and experimentally tested fairly easily; however, ocean acidification is happening slowly with large impacts expected in the future. If we wait for the future conditions to arrive before actually understanding what is happening and what impacts may occur, it may be too late.

OC: How might prize competitions help push research and conservation?

DD: The inclusion of prize competitions will help research and conservation immensely. U.S. educational institutions are producing bright scientists. Advancements in technology have allowed a number of innovative ideas, once thought to be impossible, become a reality. However, funding for research programs remains a limiting factor in experimentally testing research theories.  The emphasis of conservation through the prize competitions included here will provide the funding needed to evaluate important ideas. Prize competitions also often attract thinkers from unusual backgrounds, which can lead to unexpected solutions and collaborations.

OC: What else could Congress do to protect coral reefs, and how can concerned citizens help?

DD: There are a number of things that can be done to protect coral reefs; I think one of the most important steps Congress can take is continue supporting the advancement of research understanding underwater ecosystems. This can be done through funding research programs, and consulting with experts to help inform better policy initiatives.  Concerned citizens can impact coral reefs as well, regardless of whether they live near a reef or not. Making smart choices in terms of energy use, transportation and consuming local foods are things that can be easily incorporated into someone’s lifestyle. When consuming seafood, shoppers can choose organisms that are sustainably caught and managed. Voters can choose politicians that support the environment. Many people vacation near tropical reefs, and they can support sustainable tourism by making smart choices in their vacation plans.

OC: As you’ve spent your career studying coral reefs, tell us about your most memorable ocean moment.

DD: It is hard to decide on one moment, but I would have to say one of my favorite memories was the first time I went diving on a coral reef. Being from Minnesota I was trained to dive in a lake, with low visibility and very cold water. My first reef dive was done in Hawaii during my undergraduate studies. The colors and diversity of the fish, corals and other marine organisms had me hooked…I had to become a coral reef ecologist.

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