Environmental Forensics & Management

In this modern era, the term “forensics” is used in reference to presenting evidence or data within a public framework such as in a public disputation or during legal or sovereign proceedings (civil and criminal). Before its current, common usage, “forensics” also referred to a type of rhetoric presented in a public forum (L. forensis, of a forum or place of assembly; Aristotle’s Rhetoric). Basically, forensics is a method of persuasion – of arguing to an audience of the importance or ‘truth’ of a specific perspective.

In environmental forensics, data/evidence are used as part of an argument to either (1) demonstrate a cause and effect relationship, or (2) demonstrate the risk or threat that an activity or object has on the integrity of the environment/ecosystem, as well as human health. In the former, environmental forensics deals with demonstrating that an activity (e.g., chemical spill, sewage spill) caused (or did not cause) a perturbation or degradation of a coral reef; it is often referred to as a Natural Resource Damage Investigation or Causal Assessment (Suter & Cormier, 2008). It also deals with partitioning or determining the relative contribution of an activity has on the demise of a coral reef when there is more than one activity that is impacting a coral reef system. In the latter, environmental forensics is also called ecological risk assessment. Risk assessment is the process of determining the probability that an activity might have an effect on a coral reef system; it is a means of gauging the risk of a human activity in causing an adverse outcome/effect. Environmental forensics is more than just generating “scientific” data as to the toxicology of a chemical or whether a chemical from a nearby human activity is killing a coral reef; it is also the skilful use of this data in an argument that can convince stakeholders, resource managers, politicians, and the general public as to the causes and threats affecting coral reefs.

Once we understand what affects or threatens coral reef integrity, we can devise wise management strategies to mitigate or prevent these adverse effects, and return coral reefs to a proper state of health. Resource managers and policy makers, once they know the cause(s) of a coral reef decline, can either mitigate or eradicate the causal activity. Likewise, if a chemical and its associated activity is known to pose a threat to coral and coral reef health, action values can be proposed and implemented for regulating the application of this chemical, or it can be banned altogether.

The Global Coral Repository will be the forefront of environmental forensics for degrading coral reefs. Our regional repositories will house laboratory facilities to conduct basic natural resource damage investigations, as well as effect characterisations for Ecological Risk Assessments. U.S. EPA and ASTM standardised tests such as pore-water toxicity assays and Toxicity Identification Evaluations can be conducted at our regional repositories, as well as at our international repositories, to determine if there are pollutants at the coral reefs that could be contributing to its decline (ASTM 2004; Downs et al., 2010). If a chemical is suspected of causing harm to coral and coral reefs, laboratory toxicity testing can be conducted at the regional repositories. These tests can be integrated into U.S. EPA’s process of ecological risk assessment, and screening and action values can be developed that will help local and regional resource managers set regulatory codes for pollutants and activities (Suter, 2006; http://www.epa.gov/oppefed1/ecorisk_ders/).

Our repositories will also be training centres to instruct local governments and community groups to conduct these investigations. Our goal is to enable local communities and their government agencies to conduct these assessments on their own. TGCR has a wide network of professors and professionals who are foremost experts in their field who can contribute to the formal training and workshops. TGCR will also collaborate with other NGOs, governments and academic institutions in establishing training workshops. Training events that are a part of TGCR’s program include:

• Primer for Forensic Environmental Assessment in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. In collaboration with Randolph College. Dec. 2011.
• Primer for Forensic Environmental Microbiology and Coral Reefs in Maui, Hawaii. In collaboration with Randolph College and U.S. NOAA. June 2012.

The Global Coral Repository will work with NGOs, governments, industry stakeholders, and local communities to manage these factors that result in coral reef decline. Management could be as simple as holding educational or public forums about the issue, or as complex as working with international NGOs to lobby provincial and federal governments to legislate and enforce wise management practices.

ASTM. Designation: E 1563 – 98 (Reapproved 2004) Standard Guide for Conducting Static Acute Toxicity Tests with Echinoid Embryos

Downs et al. (2010). In vitro cell-toxicity screening as an alternative animal model for coral toxicology: effects of heat stress, sulfide, rotenone, cyanide, and cuprous oxide on cell viability and mitochondrial function. Ecotoxicology 19:171-184.

Suter (2006). Ecological risk assessment and ecological epidemiology for contaminated sites. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment 12:31-38

Suter & Cormier (2008). A theory of practice for environmental assessment. Integ. Environ. Assess. Mang. 4:478-485.