Kristen Marhaver
Humans Versus The Ocean

Kristen Marhaver is a marine biologist, researcher, public speaker, and perhaps most uniquely, an optimistic conservationist. She is the perfect voice for a new, more tenacious era of conservation; the kind of person who is able to take her passion and make it yours, simply through her own enthusiasm.

Marhaver works to not only protect coral reefs from extinction, but also, along with her team of researchers in Curacao, investigates the many ways in which these remarkable creatures can benefit us all. From acting as natural storm defenses to producing molecules that can be used for to create new antibiotics and cancer drugs, these diverse ecosystems have a lot more to offer than it may initially seem.

Despite the fact that they are home to more than 25% of all known species of fish, almost a third of reef formations have already been lost. They are sensitive to even the slightest shifts in water temperature and acidity and as such climate change and pollution have had devastating effects on their populations. But Marhaver remains confident that public awareness is growing, and that governments are at last starting to take note of the incredible wealth of biodiversity on their doorsteps.

Last year Marhaver and her collegues were able to breed one of the rarest coral species, the pillar coral, in a lab for the first time. It hailed a major breakthrough in understanding corals and proved that there is hope for a future in which they can once again thrive.

How did you first become interested in marine biology and coral reefs in particular?

I was not one of those children that grew up dreaming of being a marine biologist, with the dolphin posters all over the bedroom. In fact I didn’t see the ocean until I was 13. I remember actually the first time I ever tasted sea water and being shocked at how salty it was. I couldn’t believe it.  I learned how to scuba-dive when I was a teenager and that became the way that I was introduced to coral reefs. At the same time my father was working for a biotech company that was trying to come up with new ways to produce cancer drugs. So I was getting into scuba-diving and also hearing all these messages about the future of biology and biotechnology, and I remember thinking to myself, “well I guess computers are kind of cool but biology is clearly the best technology.” So I ended up going to college just to study biology.

I knew I didn’t want to be a medical doctor but I didn’t have a plan beyond that. I didn’t even know what it meant to be an academic or a researcher. At the end of my three and a half years as an undergrad my mentors asked me, “Where are you going to grad-school?” And I hardly even knew what that meant. It turns out if you don’t have anyone in your family who has ever been in academia, you don’t even really know it exists. So I had choices to study cell biology or cancer biology, and I just said that I really wanted to study corals and I put my foot down. And I’ve kept doing that ever since which I’m really thankful for because I love working on them.

What was it about corals? Was there one experience where you were like, “this is it. This is what I’m going to do”?

I always thought they were interesting. I liked the mental challenge of studying an animal that is so distantly related from humans. It’s very hard to know what they want and what matters to them. You know, if you’ve got a mammal, a mouse or a dog, you can kind of use your own experience to understand what it is that matters for their health and survival, but if you look at jellyfish and their relatives, living in the middle of the ocean for hundreds of millions of years. . . it means you have to think really creatively to understand their biology. And they’re beautiful, so I was also just attracted to them by the aesthetic aspect of such an amazing ecosystem.

You’ve said that the phrase “save the coral” is a bit of an unhelpful term and tends to be ignored when people know nothing about coral. So how do you hope to raise public awareness about coral conservation? What is the best approach? 

I’ve been frustrated with messaging we use in science and communication for a long time. Part of that is because the relationship between scientists and the press has been fraught for so long. By that I mean that scientists were not allowed to speak to the press. That was considered tarnishing their neutral perspective on the world. The messaging around ecosystems, especially coral reefs, has for so long tended to be either over simplified, or hysterical, or off tone. Somehow the messaging has skipped over what a coral actually is and straight to just – “save the coral reefs!” in an angry tone of voice. And no one wants to hear you scream at them about things that they didn’t know they were doing wrong. So part of my mission is to back off with the screaming and just talk about what interesting animals they are.

Having said that, the best science journalists go in and study until they have a really strong command of the topic. Those journalists are our gems. When I was doing press for a paper that I wrote last year I was able to see first-hand the command of the subject from a writer for the BBC or NPR, compared to someone who has to put out five articles a day for a web-platform.

"If you look at jellyfish and their relatives, living in the middle of the ocean for hundreds of millions of years. . . it means you have to think really creatively to understand their biology."

Kristin Marhaver on her love of sea creatures

I think we’ve reached some kind of wormhole where now that content moves so fast you have to start talking about things over again. You can’t make up enough news for a twitter feed without re-using things. So we’ve now got ways to float the important stuff back to the surface. Journalists have also started changing policies about science coverage. NPR did this a few years ago. They said, “we’re not giving equal weight to a scientific consensus versus a paid group of opposition and sceptics.” So it’s slowly changing, but it’s been very frustrating to watch conservation issues suffer because of these problems with the way the media works.

I think as well we’re all consuming so much media that the news we do receive can be very confusing and appear contradictory.

Yeah, some people live near reefs that are really suffering and others are working in places where there is hope. So you get those opposite messages because there are places that are doing really well and there are other places where it’s nearly over.

Lately scientists have been more willing to start tinkering and trying active approaches to restoration recovery such as the assisted evolution project. For a long time people thought the problem was too big to affect through engineering or hands-on work, so the only proper action responses were through policy, like stopping over-fishing and stopping fertiliser and sewage input. Now people are starting to say – “ok why don’t we try some of these other things? Why don’t we try growing corals in different water temperatures and see if we can get them through this bottleneck? Or why don’t we try putting different surfaces underwater and seeing if we can get them to attach?” The field is opening up to the idea of engineering and assisting, rather than just observing and documenting the decline. I work on some of those sorts of projects as well, but it’s a slow process.

I often imagine early cultures in the Americas trying to get seeds from plants to grow, and through that process agriculture is born over hundreds and hundreds of years. It feels kind of like we’re collecting seeds in a forest, and trying to grow a tomato plant that’s slightly bigger and slightly more edible. We’re still so many steps away from being able to grow a field of tomatoes, but we’ve started to say, “hey maybe we don’t have to hunter-gather, maybe we can start to shape this world more actively.” The truth is that coral reefs are suffering badly right now, but there are still places where things are going surprisingly well given all the threats.

One thing you mention in your TED talk is that coral reefs are important in the development of antibiotics. This is a really fascinating area, could you expand a little on the technical side to that?

Absolutely. It’s not just antibiotics but all sorts of medically important molecules that have been discovered on coral reefs, just like they have in rainforests. They’re such biodiverse systems, with millions of organisms all trying to survive, and so those organisms have invented molecules that don’t exist anywhere else on earth. Some of the organisms on coral reefs produce anti-bacterial compounds to protect them from pathogens, others produce molecules that affect cell cycles and so could be important in cancer pharmaceuticals, and there are even molecules that people are using to develop face creams and lotions. So really it’s born from the biodiversity of the systems and the fact that a lot of those organisms can’t move so they have to invent chemicals to fight with.

There’s a huge field of it now. They call it bio-prospecting, which I know has a little bit of a loaded sound to it, but the upside is that there is starting to be national treaties which give the origin country access to part of the profits of whatever molecules are discovered and developed. So therefore it’s less likely that a country where those organisms are living gets screwed over in the process of developing a new drug.

You said that a simple way to encourage more coral growth is to utilise certain materials and even 3-D print coral in some cases.

We’re still in the early stages of figuring out what the best materials are to encourage coral growth and in some places of course you don’t want them to grow, just like you don’t want barnacles to grow over the hull of a ship. But like I was saying before, we don’t have to be fully hands off. We’re still in the early stages, but we’re starting to realise that certain materials matter so much and we can start to pick them based on what will attach.

In an ideal world where you were given unlimited funding, what would be your game plan for the next few years in coral conservation?

Most scientists would answer that question by saying, “I want to do a lot more science in a lot more places with a lot more species.” But we already know enough to do a lot of good. If there was unlimited funding, one of the first things I would do is just buy land and hire people to protect the coral reefs next to it. There are places where coral reefs are thriving, mostly places without much human development, but there isn’t the funding to support patrol boats or to make sure that fisherman have a way to make a living that compliments the protection that you put in place.

If I had to spend money on research rather than hands-on conservation I think I would make a big push to get coral biology closer to where we are with cell biology or some of the better studied organisms. You know, a lot of these organisms we can only work with for a few days a year. I would make a big push to create better model systems for corals so that we can study them a thousand times faster. Even the depths that we can dive with one tank or the amount of air that fits in one dive tank, or the amount of sunlight in a day, all of these have limited our ability to study coral reefs over the past 50 years and we all wish that we could go faster.

Do you think that coral biology is an area of science that has been overlooked?

The field itself is extremely robust but when reefs started to die scientists rightly shifted their attention to what was causing the death, and that meant we kind of lost some speed in just understanding their basic biology and their microbial associations. So I often wish that nothing had happened and that we could just be studying them for their fascinating biology. It seems so often that we have to justify our work based on the idea of conservation when we shouldn’t have to. We should be able to do science for the sake of science and do science for the sake of conservation, as we see fit.

"It’s not just anti-biotics but all sorts of medically important molecules that have been discovered on coral reefs. [...] They call it bio-prospecting, there are treaties which give the origin country access to part of the profits of whatever molecules are discovered and developed."

On harvesting the coral reefs

Do you think the destruction of coral reefs is purely down to human error? Or is there an element of ‘survival of the fittest’ through natural environmental changes that are also harming them on a large scale?

Absolutely. The reason we worry so much about coral reefs and the reason they’re doing so badly is that they evolved in clear blue waters in the blazing sun, in what people considered ocean deserts. The water would have been so clear because there was almost no food in it. So these organisms survived to be very efficient recyclers, to trust that the water will always be clear and clean, and to grow slowly as they build these structures. They have to sit there in the blazing sun defending themselves from the sun and harbouring algae in their skin. Corals can live in worse conditions than that, but coral reefs evolved in extremely clean pristine environments, which means that just a little bit of sewage or fertiliser, or sediment from construction, or a little bit of over-fishing can shift the balance towards the algae on the bottom. Coral reefs didn’t evolve to expect humans to come along and do those things.

The thing that we are seeing which is really fascinating, and goes along with this thing of survival of the fittest, is that we do see reefs regrow in places where we thought we should give up. So it seems at least at the juvenile stage there is some potential flexibility in the physiology. These things have gone through hundreds of millions of years of evolution and survival, so they do have some capacity to adapt to temperature changes, and sunlight changes, and different nutrients in the water. It’s just that we’re pushing them so fast that many of them are having a hard time keeping up.

Have you found that people have become more tuned into this subject of coral conservation in recent years?

I think so. When I started my PhD we talked about things like how your seafood choice matters because some fisheries are over-fished, and I remember thinking, “how do you get people to care?” And I’ve just recently seen a McDonald’s commercial that said –  made with sustainable fish. My jaw dropped! You know, it was not that long ago that the notion of your seafood choice mattering was really obscure, and now McDonald’s is advertising it. So there’s definitely a greater consciousness about the environment, and I’m hoping that we can keep the messages away from misery and toward cautious optimism and practicality. The things we have to do for conservation are still so huge. We need massive, really brave, risky decisions to be taken by CEO’s and ministers, and people who live in countries where they’re fighting corruption at the same time as trying to keep economies going.

We still have to act on such huge scales to move the ship, but I think finally there’s more of a global understanding that not only can we move the ship, but that we should all be helping to steer. There’s this great quote from Nancy Knowlton who is a mentor of mine. She said, “We went from thinking the ocean was too big to hurt, to thinking it’s too big and too sick to help.” I think slowly we’re getting out of that idea.

"I’ve just recently seen a McDonald’s commercial that said – made with sustainable fish. My jaw dropped!"

Corporations starting to embrace conservation

In 50 years’ time will we still have coral reefs in the world?

Absolutely. We know the right actions to take to protect them, and what we’ve learnt is that the action you take on the scale of the reef matters more than the global assault. So we will definitely have reefs in 50 years, but we have to choose where we want to protect them, where we want to put in the muscle and give them the best chance of making it. We won’t have them if we just hope for good luck.

Image credits: 
1. Feature shot by Bret Hartman
2. On stage photo by Ryan Lash
3. 3-D models of Coral by Reef Design Lab


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