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ENDANGERED: Caribbean coral reefs

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The coral reefs of the Caribbean coast curve around 38 countries including the regions of Florida, The Bahamas, Bermuda and the north-eastern coast of South America. Despite a reputation for being one of the world's most beautiful places, under the sea lurks an alarming reality. Its ecosystem is listed as one of the top 10 most endangered and it is feared that it will disappear in less than two decades.

Panama Marine Life - Coral Reefs Image Credit: thinkpanama from Flickr

The Caribbean is home to nine per cent of the world’s coral reefs, yet only around one-sixth of the original coral-cover remains. The reefs act as the lifeblood to the surrounding countries with over 43 million people supported economically through tourism, fishing and goods. More than US $3bn is generated annually from these industries.

However, coral reefs are a fragile ecosystem. Coral and algae coexist and depend on each other in a 'symbiotic relationship'. The rise in sea temperatures, pollution from storm runoffs, overexposure to sunlight or extreme low tides can cause algae to leave the coral, making it vulnerable to disease –marked by its white colour. This effect has also been referred to as ‘bleaching’ where the coral turns white and diseased once the algae have left. The corals have consequently declined by more than 90 per cent since the 1970s.

A healthy coral reef should consist of anywhere between 30-100% of surface coral, with a fraction of that being seaweed or other algae and sea sponges less than ten per cent. At first glance, the Caribbean reefs appear to be brimming with life. Bright oranges, hues of yellow and vibrant purples suggest health, yet it is nothing more than the sponges living on dead coral that mask its deterioration.

  Coral bleaching at Heron Island Feb 2016_credit The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey / Richard Vevers

Image Credit: Stop Adani from Flickr

The threats

A myriad of factors has threatened the Coral Reefs in the Caribbean. Since the 1980s the devastating effect of coral bleaching was learnt with rising temperatures causing an imbalance that affected the vulnerable ecosystem. Alongside climate change, the tourist industry with cruise ships, fishing and commercial industries with overfishing and infection carried by cargo ships have also been identified as key factors in catalysing the environmental destruction.

The lucrative nature of the tourist industry of the Caribbean region cannot be discounted. The cruise ships that frequently travel between islands carry pollutants. The pressure and demand of the industry have led to rapid coastal developments. The subsequent sewage discharge, urban runoff and construction pollutes the water and monumentally impacts the delicate coral ecosystem. The contamination often leads to bleaching and disruption of the environment, making it near impossible to reverse the damage. It is estimated that one-third of the Caribbean coral reefs are affected by this coastal development encouraged by tourism.

Beyond the effects of tourism, overfishing is an epidemic that has affected 60 per cent of the Caribbean coral reefs. Unsustainable fishing is believed to be a core threat to the region, altering the ecological balance of the reef. For example, the removal of fish which consume algae can lead to an overgrowth of coral. The National Geographic supports the view that the gradual extinction of natural predators is detrimental in affecting the deterioration of the reef, the disappearance of grazer species such as the parrotfish and sea urchin have led to the uncontrolled growth of Sponges.

The overarching issue that encompasses these two human causes is global warming itself. The rising temperature of sea levels is an extensive issue related to coral bleaching- the clearest indicator of the stress climate change has placed on the reefs.

Future Conservation Efforts

To tackle and fight for the retention of the coral reefs a range of local, national and transnational efforts have been made. It appears that beyond tackling climate change, protection and holistic awareness of the cause of coral bleaching is vital in any true conservation efforts.

Education regarding this issue has been emphasized with organisations such as the Center for Biological Diversity represented by Earth Justice fighting for legal protection, to be supported by the 38 neighbouring countries to take ownership and responsibility of their biggest natural resource. In 2006 elkhorn and staghorn corals were protected under the Endangered Species Act, alongside following acts to curb fishing in threatened areas.

People diving on body of waterImage Credit: Oleksandr from Pexels 

Creating protected areas or fishing bans has been shown to be effective in conserving the reefs. For example, where Parrotfish, a key grazer than maintains ecological balance in the reef are protected, the coral reefs are some of the healthiest in the region.   

 

Other charities such as the Nature Organization adopt a multifaceted approach. They address root causes such as overfishing through training and documentation of the reefs alongside cutting edge scientific methods to restore the reefs such as 'micro-fragmentation and facilitated sexual reproduction'. The main issue remains that without a homogenous and streamlined effort from all 38 countries of the region, it will be increasingly more difficult to protect this ecosystem.

 

However, with many countries slowly learning to appreciate their relationship with the reef and organisations such as 'Healthy Reefs for healthy people' initiative measuring and advocating for sustainable human intervention there appears to be hope for the future. In ten years, Healthy Reefs documentation has seen that the reef has improved from a score of poor 2.3 to fair 2.8 out of 5, and coverage improving from 10% to 18%  with 57% of the territory they work in becoming protected, signalling a brighter future compared to the bleak reality faced a decade ago.

Lead Image Credit: Derek Keats from Fickr




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