“Tourism itself does not cause corals to bleach. However, the physical damage from stepping on corals has drastically declined with the lack of tourists. This may seem like a small impact but this allowed coral to continue to grow and create larger refuges for fish,” said Justin Berg, a graduate student at the University of Guam’s Marine Lab.
Coral reefs are vital for Guam, luring tourists, sustaining cultural fisheries, and buffering coastlines from storms. Understanding how the pandemic has affected Guam’s coral reefs gives deeper insight into future research practices and coral protection, researchers said.
Tourist-heavy places, such as Tumon, have seen more coral growth and larger fish populations this past year.
While the pandemic has allowed some recovery of Guam’s coral reefs, the pandemic has also harmed corals.
Berg said fish populations have dispersed, allowing algae concentrations to increase and possibly cover corals.
Furthermore, Dr. Laurie Raymundo, professor of Marine Biology at the University of Guam Marine Lab, added that “efforts towards recycling and removing solid waste have been neglected in areas in Tumon. In fact, trash is more prevalent.”
The pandemic also has significantly harmed coral research opportunities.
Berg is studying the effects of sedimentation on the coral microbiome for his thesis. His research area is studying how coral bacteria and their symbionts are affected by sedimentation in Fouha Bay during the wet and dry seasons. However, the pandemic has caused some delays in equipment. Additionally, at the start of the pandemic, his group couldn’t meet to collect his thesis corals from the field, which also pushed back his study.
Similarly, Raymundo’s restoration work was interrupted when someone in the team got sick. She ha to cancel trips for coral outplanting, which caused some delay there as well, she said. She said her research is crucial as she is currently reestablishing corals that are at the risk of extirpation to more locations.
With more residents vaccinated against the vaccine and much of the restrictions lifted, most of her projects have resumed, allowing her to do more conservation work in additional areas.
How teens can help
Raymundo and Berg said there are different ways residents, and teens in particular, can help save Guam’s coral reefs.
“High school students have a huge capacity to change the behavior of their parents,” Raymundo said, noting that illegal dumping is one of the biggest issues plaguing the marine environment.
This trash will eventually get into the ocean and break down into microplastic, she said. Studies have shown that plastic wrapped around corals is strongly associated with coral disease. Trash contains many harmful bacteria and will easily infect and kill the tissue of corals when wrapped around. She added her coral restoration sites always have trash, an indicator that the issue above water and on land is impacting life underwater.
Berg encouraged teens to spend time snorkeling and seeing the reefs and fish.
“Once one sees the beauty of the ocean, it’s infectious,” he said.
He said taking advantage of events like Charter Day, when the Marine Lab is open to the community, can be an opportunity to learn more about the work they do and find other ways to engage.
“Lastly, I think participating in the (National Science Foundation's INCLUDES program as a high schooler gives a unique perspective of research at the university level and can influence a student to join a marine biology program,” Berg said.
The NSF INCLUDES Big Idea is a national initiative to enhance U.S. leadership in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) discoveries and innovations focused on NSF's commitment to diversity, inclusion, and broadening participation in these fields, according to the NSF website.
“This kind of positive influence at a young age could lead to local students staying on Guam after graduating to lead in future marine projects for their island," Berg said. "Paving the way for future researchers is vital and starting at a young age can lead to a lifetime in the marine field.”