Preserving Coral, Coastlines, and Marine Ecosystems

Oceanographers John McManus and Liana Talaue-McManus could talk of their exceptional academic records. They both earned Ph.D.s in 1986 in about half the time it takes most candidates.

They could talk about their professional achievements. John spent the first three days of April in Dubai, UAE, advising world leaders on scientific research and environmental planning as it pertains to development of seaside communities. Liana recently received the University of Miami’s coveted 2007 Excellence in Teaching award.

They could talk about their decades of work in the Philippines teaching artisanal fishermen and politicians about environmental stewardship.

And they could talk about the dangers of global warming, over-taxing of natural resources, pollution, plastic baby bottles, and all the other pertinent environmental issues that have enjoyed unprecedented media coverage in the past few years.

All of this and more comes up in an hour-long phone conversation with the two at their home in Miami, but neither one spends much time talking about past events. The McManuses are much more interested in the future, a future in which scientists and average citizens partner in coastal conservation efforts.

In his address to key industrial and political leaders gathered for the World Summit on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, John put it this way: “Because approximately two-thirds of the Earth’s inhabitants live in coastal communities, we have to emphasize the urgent need to protect areas of representative regional biodiversity. Using participatory coastal management and supportive science, as well as cutting-edge decision support tools, we can help to preserve our coral reefs and other marine ecosystems for the future, while still meeting the demands created by our growing global populations.”

The McManuses are proponents of participatory coastal and resource management, the idea that inviting all concerned constituencies to the table—politicians, developers, scientists, environmentalists, and Sally the weekend beachcomber—is the way to ensure that common goals supplant special interests where matters of the coastline and ocean resources are concerned.

They would like to see scientific research and information about the ocean made available online so that everyone can feel like a stakeholder in the future of the planet.

The McManuses are members of the faculty of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. The school has 100 faculty members and 190 graduate students. John is a professor of marine biology and fisheries and director of the National Center for Coral Reef Research. Liana is a scientist in marine affairs specializing in the impact human beings have on coastal environments. A Fulbright grantee, she completed her master’s and Ph.D. programs at URI in four-and-a-half years. “I plowed through,” she recalled. “I had an assistantship. I would arrive in the morning, work until 4 or 5 p.m., have dinner, return, and then work until 4 a.m.”

John entered the Ph.D. program at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography in 1982. He was fresh from a stint in the Peace Corp working in the Philippines. It was there that he began a study of coral reefs that would lead to his being named Leader of the Aquatic Environments Program of the Worldfish Center and to his founding of ReefBase, the Global Coral Reef Database, and the international Coral Reef Action Network.

This world-renowned expert arrived at his specialty in an attempt to fill a need. “The research institute there needed someone to get involved in coral,” John said of his Peace Corps service. “They were faced with the problem of people blasting coral to get to the fish. So I sold my car to buy books to study coral reef ecology.”

Liana chose URI to complete her master’s and Ph.D. on the advice of her advisor at the University of Maine. John, who has a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut, chose URI for the chance to work with Saul Saila, a biological oceanographer and winner of the American Fisheries Society’s 2001 Award of Excellence. Saila was the only academic at that time studying the interaction between fishing and community ecology, John said. URI was just the place and Saila just the person for someone aspiring to do coral reef studies from the community-ecological standpoint.

After graduation, the McManuses spent 20 years in Southeast Asia working in coastal management. Liana’s work on community-based participatory planning of coastal and marine resources development in the Philippines resulted in the passage of legislation based on her work with the communities of Bolinao and Bani. Hers was the first coastal resources management plan in that country.

In 2006, the pair were made associate members of the World Technology Network, a designation given to organizations and/or individuals for achievement in innovation.

The McManuses have three daughters: Lisa, 20, a marine and computer science dual major at the University of Miami, and twins Naomi and Tabitha, 16, high school juniors. The frequent travelers agreed that one parent would stay home with the children at all times. Now, with their family almost grown, they look forward to the day when they can once again travel and work together.

Certainly there is no shortage of work when it comes to managing coastal resources. “It would take 10 lifetimes to do this,” John said.