Episode 6: Scientist Juan Ortiz

Coral researcher Juan Ortiz shares some new ideas about how we might manage the Great Barrier Reef like a person with a chronic health condition.

Audio transcript

Introduction: The Great Barrier Reef needs to be fighting fit to cope with climate change. While the world takes action to address climate change, improving water quality is the best thing we can do to increase the Reef’s resilience. Run-off from the neighbouring catchment can cause all sorts of problems when pollutants end up in delicately balanced reef ecosystems in his podcast series we talk to farmers scientists extension officers and local experts to hear their water quality perspectives.

Juan: My name is Juan Ortiz

I work for the Australian Institute of Marine Science. I am a marine ecologist and an ecosystem modeller. I mainly work looking at the effect of different disturbances on coral reefs and modelling what the future may look like for them.

My interest in science started when I was in high school and it was a bit of a mismatch because I was odd in the sense that I like math but I wasn't very good at it and I liked it because I could understand ideas and make them up in my mind and sort of accurately figure out where things were going. But I couldn't write them down very well. So in the tests I wasn't doing very well but all my teachers were saying you should be a mathematician. I said but well I almost fail every test and they said yes areas we have to work on that but you have that mind. So that's starting to sort of give me sort of the interest in that.

Then when I finish high school I went and did a diving course and I started diving and then I fall in love with the sea and with corals and very quickly most people when they start diving at my age (that was back in Venezuela) they got fixated with big fish and stuff like that. But very quickly I was fixated with corals rather than moving things. So I guess that's where it all started and a bit after that I'd set out to do biology at university in Venezuela and I did that and even though when I started I had not decided that I was going to do my thesis on corals. I ended up doing that and I was quite involved with a scuba diving club in the school of biological sciences there so we did a lot of diving and it was very different because at the time it was all free. The university wasn't allowed to charge you for anything. So we have to figured out how to do it we didn’t have much money so we used to go with very poor equipment and not much resources and go to beautiful places but very limited. But that made it really precious. So it made me sort of fall in love more and more with it. And then seeing it how it wasn't doing that great made me think well maybe I should start looking at it and think about it a bit more.

Then I came to Australia and did a PhD with Ove Hoegh-Guldberg at the University of Queensland where I was kind of the odd one in the lab because Ove’s lab is mainly physiology and my PhD was all ecology looking at things how they die and grow. Then I started doing some modelling in a postdoc that I was doing at UQ, looking at the whole ecosystem and how you can predict what happens when we throw stuff at the corals and very quickly we started to get more and more results suggesting that the future wasn't looking very bright and that we had to do things to try and make it look better.

Vanessa: Could you tell us about modelling because it's come up a lot. I've been interviewing a lot of different people especially farmers and people who aren't scientists and especially not mathematically minded. They struggle with the concept of modelling. How do you explain it?

So when people think of models often they think a very complicated thing where not even the person driving the model understand it. And that gives you some outputs that you don't know how you get to them. And of course there are some very complicated models that require a lot of people and perhaps not a single person can explain the whole thing. But the important thing for me to highlight is that there is nothing wrong with models and we couldn't live without models and most of the time people don’t question what models say, it's only when what the models say is perhaps not what the people is expecting to hear or is affecting their behaviour.

So you have to get a model to be able to take away the signal of all the things you are not interested in and only look at the effect of what you are measuring or managing which is for example how much nutrients are put in the water, so you can then get that thing of causality which is something people, farmers are really interested in. ‘Is it my nutrient that is that is actually increasing or reducing?

Vanessa: Do you ever get to talk to farmers in person?

Juan: I do, not as much as I like to. That's because we are all very busy. We have many things to do. The farmers are of course not very close to where we work. And also often that interaction even though it is recognised as being important, it is not recognised as being a priority in both sites all the time. So I don't have as many opportunities but when I do I actually often enjoy it and I like to say that they do enjoy it as well. Not every time but often I try to go from the human perspective. We are both humans we have challenges that are common and then from there go a little bit more into the things both me and the farmers want to talk about. [00:07:37][41.1]

Vanessa: They do want to know what's happening in their paddock but I realise this is almost impossible for us to give us that specific information. So in some ways we're asking them to trust the process and the scientists who are giving them information?

Juan: We are and sometimes we lose track.And this is something I think is really important.Scientists and policy makers and anyone that is not a farmer often see solutions are straightforward. Well we have a problem. The water getting into the Great Barrier Reef is not very clean. All we have to do is get it cleaner.

That sounds a very straightforward problem and solution. It doesn't really work like that and it doesn't work like that because we have to recognise that farmers are there because we need what they produce. And because that's basically what they've done for years and that's basically all they can do to survive and they have families the same way we do and all that and a behavioural change for them involves not only been convinced that what we are suggesting makes sense but changing the whole way they work. And it has impacts both in their families and in their economy and in everything. So I think one of the reasons why perhaps we haven't got that involvement with the farmers and that changing behaviour as quickly as we would have liked to. Even though it's faster here than in other places in the world but still it's not as fast as we need it to be. And I think that has to do with the message and how we have tried to communicate things and this has been historically very one dimensional. We have some evidence that if you change your behaviour, the reef will be better. That's kind of the picture we always and that's a really broad method, right. That's the amount of trust and belief. Literally belief as almost religious belief. That you are asking to put on you where you put such a broad statement is huge. People would not change their behaviour in any other environment just if you just broadly come and say ‘Yes yes you do these things are going to be better’ and that's all we can say. And also they are bombarded. We are all bombarded and I’m partially responsible for that, with bad news about what's happening in the Reef.

And then we go a little bit into the psychology of it which is something I really like which is we from the beginning and it's not only in the marine space but in management and you know often have got the message sort of the wrong way around.

When you look at the psychology we would try to make them make look at the fact that they are doing something that is damaging the reef and showing how badly the reef is being damaged. Now there is psychological research that has shown that when you provide that type of information the emotions that you trigger is either guilt or anger. Guilt and anger tend not to lead to change in environmental behaviour. It tends to do lead to either the need for punishments, they want someone to be punished, or the need for escapes, so just get out of here and not be involved. If you actually craft your message in a way that it triggers pride then the emotion that you actually trigger is pride and the change in behaviour is potentially maximised.

So something I've been working lately to try to change the way we package information and we deliver it to try to actually trigger pride as opposed to guilt in the farmers or any stakeholder that we want or need for them to change behaviour.

Vanessa: I'm interested in this step you've taken a sidestep I guess from the core research you do, into this area of science communication and psychology and it's one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you today. How did that happen for you?

Juan: Well that's a sort of a funny story and it wasn't planned at all. So what happened was that two and a half years ago or so I was invited to an event organised by the then Chief Scientist of Queensland for early career researchers. The Chief Scientist came and gave a talk and we had a chat and there were I think about 150 people from many different fields of science and they said well we have a challenge for you. We are going to randomly allocate you into tables so you don’t know who is on your table. So we all went to the tables and then we were like what are we going to come up with?’ And by chance we ended up in a table where there was another ecosystem modeller and there was a medical scientist who works with the treatment of patients with chronic conditions. So when we started chatting the idea came about well maybe one thing we can do is see whether we can apply principles from one field to a different field. And then we say well medical scientists have been looking at patients with chronic conditions for much longer than environmental management has even existed. Right it’s been even for millennia. And because of that they have a lot of information and they actually have done trials to look at what works and what doesn't work. We only had 20 minutes to come up with it. and what we found out is that once we started looking at it that way there were many commonalities and the first thing we sort of identified quite quickly is that it is quite reasonable if you think about it to think of the Great Barrier Reef. The reef in general but in this case the Great Barrier Reef, as a patient with chronic conditions. Because all the things we're trying to manage in relation to the Great Barrier Reef, even if we're successful we're only going to fix it in the long term. So it's like an ongoing management right so that's what you do with patients with chronic conditions, so that was the first thing. Once we identify that then we want to say ‘well let's look in the medical literature and see what they have found makes a big difference’. And of course there were a whole lot of drugs and things like that which don't apply. But one of the things that we realise that they found that the involvement of the family of patients with chronic condition has a very significant impact in the well-being of the patient and in the long term recovery of the patient.

And that had two components. It had one sort of emotional component which is well that people were generally happier and that means there were healthier. That bit we can't really an analogy with the Reef because we don’t know how to measure how happy the corals are or how happy a reef is. But the second component they studied was the fact that given the same treatment physically they were actually doing better.

And the reason why they were doing better is because they were having their medications at the right time all the time, they were eating better. So there were a whole lot of other things that were making it be better because they were supported by the family. When we noticed that then we started to think this is kind of similar to the Great Barrier Reef again.

We always are in these big meetings with all these different stakeholders and it's very broad. Right. We have from the scientists looking at the reef, the managers trying to look at it, the politicians trying to make laws to protect it, all the way through, the farmers that are somewhat related to it, the tourist operators that need the reef to use it. The miners that have to get their things through the reef to get it out, all the way to the large society which recognises the reef as important to them in Australia.

So we said well what we have here is an analogy where we can consider all of those stakeholders as the family of the reef and we can paint them in a map where you have:

  1. very close family, the stakeholders that are more directly related to the reef and
  2. very extended family that could be perhaps society at large, the same way you have in a normal family

And then a lot of the analogies made a lot of sense because you know families are people that get along very well and people that don’t. They have big fights, they stop talking to each other and then they talk again, but they have something that makes them stay together.

And we thought that concept was quite powerful for something like the Great Barrier Reef. The next step was, well that's great we can do that and we could just write a nice sort of emotional piece and say this is important.

But if we just stopped there it is not going to make that much of a difference. What can we do to actually use this in a way that can make things easier for the management of the reef? And what we thought is that well once we identify that we should look again in the scientific and medical and psychological literature to see what can we do differently to make sure that the concept of the family makes the biggest effect in the output of the management of the Great Barrier Reef.

We looked at two different things, we look at how important is to trigger pride as opposed to anger or guilt. And we then look at a whole lot of research. We didn't do the research, we looked at what had already been done that shows how to actually trigger pride what you have to do what kind of information you need to actually trigger pride and what we came up with when we look at the whole research is that good news stories is what make the difference and local good news stories are the best winners you can have because then you can trigger that pride the best.

So we then look at how management is done in the GBR and what is the different players in the management of the GBR, the governance of the GBR. We realise that we think there is a missing link there. There is a role that is not being fulfilled and we call that the role of the story scouters and crafters.

We don't have anyone in charge of actively looking for good news stories that can be packed and presented and provided to the extension officers to make their work much easier, to make the system work better.

So what we've been proposing is to identify and fund that role and put it in the system so we can get a better output.

Vanessa: Do you have some examples of some good stories coming out of even the work you do?

Juan: We do. We do. One of the reasons why we came up with this idea that we need someone looking at those good news stories is because they are not just gonna appear. It’s not just looking at the same data we look at and they will be there and there is two reasons why. Remember we are really interested in local good news stories not good news stories. It's not if we get a paper and say the reef is doing better than what we thought. That may be great. And it may be great for society, it’s not going to make farmers change that much because it is the same thing as a bad news story for the whole reef. Good news story for the whole reef doesn't really make that link of what they are doing.

Those good news stories that are local are often going to be generated by scientists because their scale is so small that they are researching that space is unlikely to lead to scientific papers. The reviewers are going to say, it’s too small you can't generalise it's not in there right now. There may be information that scientists produce that a bit of it can be used for that but someone has to do that and even just looking at things that are already out there so we had a couple of examples.

We have an example on their report cards that the government puts together particularly the regional record report cards. In general they are all presented the same way they have a little bit of a pie chart with colours where green is really good, red is really bad and yellow is sort of in the middle. Historically it has looked quite red because things are not doing that well and even though we have had improvement things won’t go from red to green in one day to another so you don't see a whole lot of green in there right. And in those it's usually like a pamphlet with different pages and you have a whole lot of different graphs like this for different parts of the area and we have found that in some of them you have one for aquaculture and that has been green and it's been green for the whole time.

However it’s one little circle green in the whole thing. The government cannot really make a big deal out of it because if they did they would look like they are trying to spin a positive out of a sea of red. But when we look at it a little bit more, when we went to some web pages, if we went to even to WWF web page and they said that the most sustainable prawns in the world are coming from those areas where that little bit of green is there. Now that's local. So if we were to campaign that we could probably make all the people in that area, even not aquaculture people, but you know tourist operators and farmers feel proud of that because it's their own area and then that could actually influence what they do.

Vanessa: I would like to come back to your science to talk about what you are discovering about water quality in corals an element of your science we could include.

Juan: We published a paper recently you can see it as the good news or bad news depending on how you want to present it. What it shows is that the GBR as a whole is actually recovering after disturbances much slower than what what it used to. It shows an 80 percent decline in the ability of the reef to recover after disturbances which is alarming of course because we know reefs naturally get disturbed. It's really important that they can recover before they get disturbed again. If you lose 80 percent of that capacity, that's big trouble right. Of course it is. We have to do as much as we can to fix that problem. When we got really excited is when we started to look with environmental data to see what was driving that reduction in recovery rate we found that a significant proportion of it was driven by water quality. We also found that in the actual data we had that we couldn't discriminate sites that were recovering better because they had better water quality and then using the model we could actually look at what happened if we improved water quality and we could notice that a whole lot of risk could be flipped from negative recovery after the disturbance to positive recovery just by improving water quality.

So that was quite refreshing because even though we started with a pretty bad news story we ended up being quite excited because it's something we can do and we know how to do. So it's like there's a roadmap and we know what we need to do. And now we know it works. So that's very empowering I think because it shows that this is perhaps one of the first time that we can see that it's actually worth the amount of effort from both government and stakeholders to make that difference with water quality. The other positive aspects I've seen recently that we have been looking at how important different type of corals are for that recovery rate because we are really sort of fixated now with recovery rate because we know we can’t prevent disturbances but we have to preserve that ability to recover.

And with some data that it's not published yet we have found that a type of coral, the plate corals that look like a table or a like a plate. They are really important for recovery if they actually kick in early in that recovery period. The reef recovers 10 times faster than if they don't.

And what we are doing now is working together with GBRMPA to try and build a case to give them a special management status within the Great Barrier Reef.

What that would mean is that GBRMPA and the Office of the GBR can actually tailor their management strategies to make sure that they do as much as they can to get those important corals to come back after disturbances. And the other really important things is that they are really sensitive to water quality which means if you improve water quality the benefit in terms of them coming back is really really measurable and significant. So those are very recent things we are doing as we speak that are directly related to water quality, good news stories and the positive impact that improving water quality can have.

Vanessa: What is actually happening to the corals when there's pollutants in the water?

Juan: So the link between the health of the corals colonies as well as the health of the reef, as the accumulation of colonies together in a site, is multiple.

There are traditionally the ones we have studied the most because they are the more obvious is mortality. So if you have let’s say pesticides there we thought that quite likely pesticides are likely to be bad for corals. We did some experiments, this is back in the day. We know this. Yes. If you put pesticides in the water they die and then we started studying what the concentration needs to be in the water for them to die. And we have some information of that however that effect even though quite dramatic if it’s high you need high concentrations of pesticides and it tends to dilute quickly so it doesn't affect a huge area of the GBR. But it's mainly the catchments very close to the to the reefs and the same way there've been a lot of the studies that have looked at what happened with sediments right sediments actually stay on top of the corals and they can die because they suffocate and also affect the recruitment of new corals because if you are full of sand the corals cannot actually recruit and survive there. So that's a direct impact. But again it tends to be limited to inshore Reef which is something we knew. Now we are looking to one more pathway which is quite promising in terms of how much benefit it could get which is growth rate of corals.

Now corals actually live in a symbiosis with little algae that lives inside their tissue and about 75 to 80 percent of their energy come from the photosynthesis that the algae inside that tissue does. So the algae actually transform their light from the sun into organic compounds and a lot of them go into the coral. The coral cannot live without that, they just cannot eat enough to produce the beautiful reef we have.

What we have noticed now is that when there are big wet seasons the light in the reef, the light that the reef gets to see can be half for up to a year and a half after the wet season because of the things that are there in the water, the combination of nutrients and sediments. When you think about that and you again go to that idea of recovery that means that if you had a reef that had local coral because it had a bleaching event or a cyclone and then you have a year and a half with half the lights that actually means less than half the growth. And if you are a starting then you need that growth. That's why those corals are so important because they grow faster than most of the corals. So that's a direct link and that's a link that has been shown to affect not only inshore reefs but also midshore reefs, so a much bigger proportion of the GBR.

Vanessa: Thank you Juan for your time.

Juan: No worries. Thank you very much.