B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
BU prof and alum pioneer in coral reef ecology studies
By Hope Green
Coral reefs are sometimes referred to as the rain forests of the sea.
Like their aboveground counterparts, reefs are home to thousands of rare
species, may contain potentially lifesaving pharmaceutical substances
-- and are in danger of being wiped out by humans.
Many coral reefs reside in close proximity to American military bases,
and in recent years the U.S. Department of Defense has played an increasing
role in reef conservation efforts. One of the military's top consultants
in this field is affiliated with the Boston University Marine Program:
ichthyologist Phillip Lobel, a CAS associate professor of biology. His
wife, ecotoxicologist and BU Marine Program alumna Lisa Kerr (GRS'97),
is a member of his research team.
With funding from the U.S. Army, Air Force, Defense Threat Reduction
Agency, and Coast Guard, Lobel and Kerr conduct basic scientific research
and environmental impact studies on reef ecosystems. Their expertise influences
military decisions involving millions of taxpayer dollars, such as whether
to clean up a hazardous waste site or conduct a dredging project near
an ancient coral formation.
The Army initially hired Lobel in 1983 as part of a project to build
a chemical weapons incinerator on Johnston Island. His role was to assess
preexisting environmental conditions to determine what, if any, harmful
effects to look for once the incinerator started operating in 1990.
The researchers found virtually no impact on wildlife once the plant
was up and running. But the military also wanted to know what previous
activities might have harmed the atoll. Chemical munitions from U.S. military
bases around the world, including the defoliant Agent Orange, had been
brought to Johnston Island and stockpiled there since 1971. The island
was the site of high-altitude nuclear testing in the 1960s, and long before
any environmental laws were passed, military personnel would dump all
manner of junk in the lagoon, such as old batteries, spent ammunition,
and electrical transformers filled with PCBs.
As part of the monitoring program, Lobel's group has conducted basic
research on fish behavior and ecology. By understanding the conditions
fish require for their life cycle and what factors disrupt that process,
Lobel says, he can advise the military when it is considering a new deep-water
mooring, dredging, or cleanup project at an atoll.
"We go from the scientific to the very practical," he says,
"and the lessons we learn in our military research are directly translatable
Recently Lobel and Kerr completed work on the Department of Defense's
Coral Reef Protection Implementation Plan, which will be distributed to
coastal military bases throughout the world. The military prepared the
90-page document in response to a 1998 executive order by President Clinton,
which required all cabinet-level departments to come up with a policy
for protecting coral reefs under their control.
"Once we develop new technologies and approaches to coral reef protection," Lobel says, "we can share these with other nations to help them better preserve their natural resources."