A BBC news item called “From Despair to Repair: Dramatic Decline of Caribbean Corals Can Be Reversed” published last week is a resounding call to action for anyone interested in the future of the Caribbean (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-28113331).
The news item was based on the publication of an important report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which found that most Caribbean coral reefs may disappear in the next 20 years, primarily due to the loss of grazers (see http://www.iucn.org/?16050).
The report, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, is the most detailed and comprehensive study of its kind published to date – the result of the work of 90 experts over the course of three years.
It contains the analysis of more than 35,000 surveys conducted at 90 Caribbean locations since 1970, including studies of corals, seaweeds, grazing sea urchins and fish. This landmark report highlights the risks faced by coral reefs from climate change, but emphasized that restoring populations of parrotfish and reducing excessive coastal pollution would halt their decline and help them recover by making them more resilient to the impacts of climate change, such as mass bleaching events caused by rising sea temperatures.
Caribbean coral reefs, spanning a total of 38 countries, generate more than US$ 3 billion annually from tourism and fisheries. Their loss would be disastrous for the economy of Caribbean islands, which rely on tourism as their main source of revenue. Beach erosion would accelerate, as reefs would no longer be able to protect the shoreline from storms.
The Caribbean’s famous white sand, which is constantly being produced by living coral reefs, would also eventually disappear. The loss of reefs would also mean the loss of countless jobs in fisheries, and further threaten the region’s already vulnerable food security.
“The rate at which the Caribbean corals have been declining is truly alarming,” said Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme. “But this study brings some very encouraging news: the fate of Caribbean corals is not beyond our control and there are some very concrete steps that we can take to help them recover.”
The authors explain that climate change does pose a serious threat to coral reefs by making oceans more acidic and causing coral bleaching but it is the loss of parrotfish and sea urchins – the area’s two main grazers – that has, in fact, been the key reason of coral
decline in the region. Reefs protected from overfishing, as well as other threats such as excessive coastal pollution, tourism and coastal development, are more resilient to pressures from climate change, according to the authors.
The report also shows that some of the healthiest Caribbean coral reefs are those that have vigorous populations of grazing parrotfish. These include the US Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the northern Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda and Bonaire (Netherlands), all of which have restricted or banned fishing practices that harm parrotfish, such as fish traps and spearfishing. Other countries are following suit.
Reefs where parrotfish are not protected have suffered tragic declines, including Jamaica, the entire Florida Reef Tract from Miami to Key West, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Well-managed reefs have bounced back suggesting that climate change is not the main determinant of current Caribbean coral health and that good management practices can save larger areas of reef if tough choices are made. This report makes a number of recommendations, which are listed in the box at the end of this article.
This important report clearly supports the decision by governments of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) to establish marine managed areas, such as Soufriere Marine Management Area (SMMA), Pointe Sable Environmental Protected Area, in St. Lucia. Tobago Cays Marine Park (TCMP) in St. Vincent & the Grenadines and Sandy Island Oyster Bed Marine Protected Area (SIOBMPA) in Carriacou (Grenadian Grenadines).
In the wider Caribbean, the Jamaican government has established and supports a network of fish sanctuaries (now officially called Special Fisheries Conservation Areas). There are currently 14 fish sanctuaries in Jamaica, and many of them have been very successful at restoring populations of fish and lobsters, with one sanctuary achieving an amazing 540% increase in fish biomass in just 2 years.
The sanctuary wardens, who are often fishermen, have defied the skeptics and proven that rapid recovery is possible when enforcement is taken seriously. In some cases wardens have been patrolling day and night to ensure that no fishing takes place inside the boundaries. These hard-working men and women are passionate about their work and understand how important fish are to their communities and coastal areas, as they have seen the dramatic and tragic decline in fisheries. Many fishermen also see the benefits of these fish sanctuaries and they are starting to catch more fish in the surrounding areas. Some fishermen are now asking for more sanctuaries to be established.
There is absolutely no reason why the early successes in the fish sanctuaries at Bluefield’s Bay, Galleon in St Elizabeth and Oracabessa cannot be replicated and expanded around Jamaica and parts of the OECS. What has started is a process of fisheries management that is owned by the local community and supported by the government. It could potentially bring back the once productive fisheries and famously beautiful coral reefs that the OECS and Jamaica were famous for. The findings of this new report strengthen the justification for this network of fish sanctuaries not just as an opportunity to safeguard the future of the islands coral reefs, but also as way of ensuring the survival of our beaches, our tourism industry and our food security.
Companies like Sandals understand the importance of protecting reefs and actively support two sanctuaries in Jamaica with the help of local fishermen. The UK government has also helped by supporting a 4-year project called Caribbean Fish Sanctuary Partnership Initiative, C-FISH (www.c-fish.org), which is being implemented by the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre and CARIBSAVE in 5 Caribbean countries, inclusive of Jamaica, St. Lucia, Grenada and Jamaica, to support marine reserves as a climate change adaptation strategy. Other international donors are also planning to join this drive to restore Jamaica’s reefs, because they see it as a vital opportunity to reduce poverty, increase food security and strengthen the resilience to the impacts of climate change.
It is imperative that governments in the Caribbean continue to provide support to marine protected areas and embrace this enlightened policy with a growing number of partners from the private sector and the international donor community. It is an investment in our future that we cannot afford to ignore.