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Feature Stories

UCLA Professor Spreads Awareness About Coral Reefs

From Issue: Volume XXII - Number 4

By Bill Owen

Dr. Paul Barber hosted a lecture Feb. 5 at the Aquarium of the Pacific about Indonesia’s Coral Triangle, a vast area of coral reef in the South Pacific.

Barber, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA, shared his experiences, research and conservation efforts with members of the community while promoting awareness about the threatened ecosystem.

According to Barber, the Coral Triangle is the most diverse marine ecosystem on the planet, with more than 500 types of coral making the reefs home.

“Let’s have some perspective here. If you go to the Caribbean and go snorkeling there are two species of branching corals in the genus Acropora in the Caribbean. That’s the entire Caribbean from Bermuda all the way down to Curacao,” Barber said.

The zone spans six million square kilometers and six countries. Its array of life is often compared to that of the Amazon. Despite these facts, the public knows very little about the area.

The Coral Triangle has a notable history in the scientific community. Alfred Russell Wallace studied the Coral Triangle and used his findings to contribute to the Theory of Evolution.

The region serves purposes beyond science, too. More than 120 million people rely on the Coral Triangle for their livelihoods, with fishing making up 2.4 percent of Indonesia’s GDP, Barber said.

Barber also believes the economy is threatening about 80 percent of reefs throughout the area.

Overfishing using homemade bombs has become an easy and effective way for fishermen to make a day’s catch in a fraction of the time it would take using other techniques. The explosions also destroy the coral, which is the basis of life on the reefs.

Coastal development brings problems relating to sewage and plastic.

Finally, Barber cited climate change as a contributor to the destruction of the Coral Triangle.

“Coral lives within a very narrow temperature range,” Barber said.

An increase in the average ocean temperature will kill coral because it cannot survive in elevated water temperatures for long periods of time.

Environmental consciousness is not as prominent in Indonesia as it is in Western societies, said Barber.

“When most people [who live near the Coral Triangle] look out at the ocean, what they see is the surface of the water. They don’t see what lies below, and because they aren’t aware of what lies below they’re not necessarily aware of how amazing it is, how inspiring it is and how it’s changing,” Barber said.

Barber believes this is in part because of a lack of media coverage, scientific publications and programs like The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau in the area.

This creates a unique set of conservation issues so specialized methods are required.

Barber says scientists in Indonesia have started to break the Coral Triangle up into smaller sections so they can create a conservation plan for each zone instead of the entire region.

“What it allows the managers to do is to treat these regions as completely independent and focus their conservation efforts more regionally, rather than trying to figure out, ‘How do we develop a conservation strategy for [all of] Indonesia?’” Barber said.

Barber is personally increasing the amount of research conducted on the reef as well.

Because there is not as much known about the Coral Triangle as other coral reefs, Barber helped to set up the Indonesian Biodiversity Research Center four years ago. The foundation promotes biodiversity research in Indonesia.

Barber and his colleagues teach Indonesian students to SCUBA dive and conduct research while diving in hopes of increasing the amount of independent research done in the area.

“Our goal here is to train and inspire a new generation of scientists…in the process of doing that…we will start to increase the amount of publications that come out of the Coral Triangle,” Barber said.

A short question and answer session with the audience took place after the presentation, and Barber passed out “Save the Coral Triangle” bumper stickers that he joked about throughout his presentation.

For more information about upcoming events at the Aquarium of the Pacific, visit or call (562) 590-3100.