Fishy Business: Alleged Fraud over Ocean Acidification Research, Reversal on Coral Extinction

by R. Alexander, June 28, 2021 in ScienceUnderAttack

In the news recently have been two revelations about the sometimes controversial world of coral reef research. The first is fraud allegations against research claiming that ocean acidification from global warming impairs the behavior of coral reef fish. The second is an about-face on inflated estimates for the extinction risk of Pacific Ocean coral species due to climate change.

The alleged fraud involves 22 research papers authored by Philip Munday, a marine ecologist at JCU (James Cook University) in Townsville, Australia and Danielle Dixson, a U.S. biologist who completed her PhD under Munday’s supervision in 2012. The fraud charges were made in August 2020 by three of an international group of mostly biological and environmental scientists, plus the group leader, fish physiologist Timothy Clark of Deakin University in Geelong, Australia. The Clark group says it will publicize the alleged data problems shortly.

The research in question studied the behavior of coral reef fish in slightly acidified seawater, in order to simulate the effect of ocean acidification caused by the absorption of up to 30% of humanity’s CO2 emissions. The additional CO2 has so far lowered the average pH – a measure of acidity – of ocean surface water from about 8.2 to 8.1 since industrialization began in the 18th century.

Munday and Dixson claim that the extra CO2 causes reef fish to be attracted by chemical cues from predators, instead of avoiding them; to become hyperactive and disoriented; and to suffer loss of vision and hearing. But Clark and his fellow scientists, in their own paper published in January 2020, debunk all of these conclusions. Most damningly of all, the researchers find that the reported effects of ocean acidification on the behavior of coral reef fish are not reproducible – the basis for their fraud allegations against the JCU work.