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It was an Associated Press report out of Kyoto, Japan, in early December that started it all. Seems an American scientist by the name of Richard Fairbanks from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at New York’s Columbia University told a crisis-hungry AP reporter that there had been a "complete ecosystem collapse" at Christmas Island. The reporter went on to describe "…stretches of dead coral, no signs of fish in the water and few birds in the sky."
Not surprisingly, a lot of anglers who know and love Christmas Island hit the panic button. "I can’t believe what I’m reading in this article. It’s devastating!" Angling Report subscriber Len Cappe moaned. "I would appreciate your finding out more. Maybe some subscribers have just returned from there…?"
Turns out a lot of subscribers and non-subscribers alike have indeed been returning from Christmas Island and they, too, can’t believe what they are reading about this wonderful mid-ocean atoll. "Is he talking about the same Christmas Island?" Steve Raymond wondered aloud when I read him the above paragraph. Raymond fished Christmas Island between December 2 and 9 and says he saw, and caught, more bonefish than he did 10 years ago on another trip. Yes, it rained a lot while he was there, which is out of the ordinary for what is usually a desert island. And, yes, bird life seemed to be way down. But an "environmental collapse?"
The mystery deepens further when you talk to Kim Anderson, the American dive master at Christmas Island. He has been there all through the latest El Nino and he worked with Fairbanks in the collection of data that is now being used to scare half the world to death. "What is all this?" Anderson asked when I called him at press time. He had just gotten off the phone with a Time Magazine reporter seeking confirmation that the island’s habitat had "collapsed."
Anderson says the current El Nino has indeed had a dramatic impact on Christmas Island, but then so do all recurrences of El Nino. For one thing, they cause a reversal in the prevailing wind and an elevation in ocean water temperatures of several degrees, which causes bleaching of some forms of coral. El Nino also causes monsoonal rains in a part of the world that commonly gets 30 inches of rain or less a year.
Mind you, the latter change has been a factor in the fishing at Christmas Island this year and the folks at Frontiers (*) readily admit that. After all, one of the enduring attractions of Christmas Island as a bonefishing destination is its perennially clear skies that make sightfishing possible almost all the time. Seemingly related to the rainfall (but only seemingly), the island has also experienced some flooding, which has made it impossible to reach some of the more desirable flats.
But that’s it for environmental changes at Christmas Island. There is no 98-degree water temperature out there, as Fairbanks was quoted to say in one report; and the water level simply hasn’t risen 40 centimeters, as he told me in a phone interview at press time. Anderson says he personally monitors tide levels at Christmas Island for various organizations and he knows this latter statement is untrue. "My house, where I am standing right now, would be flooded if the water came up that high," he said.
The bottom line here is, if you are in the pipeline to visit Christmas Island, by all means go ahead. It may rain a bit while you’re there, but the bonefish are still there by the millions, there are enough birds around to make headgear advisable and the island is wondrously green from all the rain. Moreover, as this is written, Anderson says, all of the obvious effects of El Nino are beginning to abate – including the rainfall. Even the coral (which Fairbanks told me "will mostly be dead by February") is recovering.
The real concern here is not just the damage that has been done to the Third World economy of Christmas Island or to the life expectancy of the folks at Frontiers, who have been doing "damage control" for months now. The real issue transcends fishing and goes to the heart of a societal problem that threatens our ability to act wisely in the modern world. That problem is the insatiable hunger among reporters, grant-needy scientists and environmental organizations for crises. There is an unholy alliance out there among these groups to make a killing out of scaring us to death. In the process, they are warping the national and international debate on everything from global warming to elephants.
Hey, maybe Christmas Island is where one crisis-mongerer gets hoisted by his own petard. After all, this tiny atoll is not a remote corner of the world where it’s safe to play fast and loose with facts. It’s an international angling crossroads where big-media types from NBC and Time-Warner hang out. Some of them even read this publication. Are you listening, guys? – Don Causey.