It’s no secret that the Caribbean coral reef is in grave danger. Back in 2014, a comprehensive report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature revealed that the reefs could disappear within the next 20 years, unless action is taken to protect them. In addition, an analysis of at least 100 different reef locations showed that the coral in the Caribbean has declined by over 50% since the 1970s.
In Jamaica, the situation is especially dire. An estimated 85% of the coral reefs surrounding the island have died since the 80s and 90s. As a result, fish populations have plummeted, and the coasts are suffering from greater erosion without the reef’s protective barrier.
Re-planting the Caribbean coral reef
Luckily, several grassroots organizations have stepped in to essentially “garden” the reefs back to life. Their efforts look something like an underwater vineyard. Coral cuttings hang off of makeshift trusses constructed from PVC pipes and tree branches. Twice a week, divers come to carefully remove algae and worms that could stifle the young coral. It’s a painstaking, tedious job, but it’s absolutely crucial to the coral’s survival.
White River Marine Association (also known as the White River Fish Sanctuary) is one such re-planting organization in Jamaica, consisting mainly of local fisherman. Training programs are already well underway to help locals become divers, coral gardeners, and wardens. With assistance and cooperation from community groups, hoteliers, and business owners around White River, at least five coral nurseries have been set up so far. The organization has also received grant funding from the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica (EFJ) under the Special Climate Change Adaptation Fund (SCCAF).
The organization’s goal, according to its Instagram profile, is to increase local fish stock by 500% in five years. They hope to achieve this goal by increasing awareness among the island’s fisherman so that they do not catch young fish that have not had a chance to reproduce, as well as by nurturing the coral gardens.
Can the Caribbean coral reef system be saved?
Although programs carried out by organizations like the White River Fish Sanctuary have seen some success, many wonder if their efforts are too little, too late.
There are many stressors that cause coral reefs to become damaged or die off. These include storms, water that is too warm and causes bleaching, disease, and ocean acidification. Those, of course, are the major causes, but coral also face many other dangers, such as oil spills, pollution, overfishing, coral collection, and damage from boats.
Even with efforts from many Caribbean nations to curb overfishing and coral collection, the reefs will undoubtedly take a long time to recover. Belize banned the fishing of parrotfish and surgeonfish in 2009, and Mexico protects ten species of parrotfish since 2018.
“Still, the essential problem is climate change,” said Dr. Mark Eakin of the Coral Reef Watch for NOAA. “From 2014 to 2017 we had a global coral bleaching event. It’s only the third. The others, in 1998 and 2010, lasted a year. The last event weakened or killed 75 percent of the world’s corals.”
A “happy” accident
It wasn’t until a freak accident occured in a scientist’s lab in 2014 that Caribbean coral reef restoration efforts took off.
Dr. David Vaughan, the director of coral-reef restoration for the Mote Tropical Research Laboratory at Summerland Key, Florida, was working in his lab when he made an incredible discovery, completely on accident. After noticing that an elkhorn coral had attached itself to the bottom of a lab tank, he pulled it off, and it shattered into pieces. To his horror, it appeared as though he had killed it.
However, several weeks later, Vaughan noticed that the pieces had grown dramatically. Normally, it would take them two years to grow to the size they had obtained. Excited, he proceeded to break some other corals in the lab into pieces. They, too, grew incredibly fast.
“It took us six years to produce 600 corals,” Vaughan told the BBC. “Now with micro fragmentation we can cut and produce 600 corals in one afternoon. We are producing more corals faster than we can actually get new tanks to put them in and having to have almost a crew planting them as fast as we’re growing them.”
While the Mote Marine Laboratory works to repopulate corals on Florida’s Reef Tract off of the Florida Keys, Vaughan has shared his discovery with other nations and encouraged them to implement micro fragmentation. He has traveled to Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, St. Martin, the Dominican Republic, Barbados to teach this coral restoration technique.
“This is now a new discovery that can give real hope for our coral reefs that has never been there before,” he said. “So I postponed my retirement until I see a million corals replanted back on the reef.”
How you can help
Whether you live near a coral reef, or explore them only while on vacation in the Caribbean, there’s actually a lot you can do to help preserve them.
The most obvious way is to avoid touching coral while snorkeling or diving. Although they may look like rocks or plants, corals are live animals. Oils from your skin can damage the coral’s protective mucus layer and expose them to pathogens. Touching them can also trigger a stress response that causes coral “bleaching”, from which the coral isn’t likely to recover. And while the loss of one coral polyp may not seem like a big deal, remember that hundreds of tourists have probably passed through the area you are visiting, putting the coral under constant stress.
In addition, you can volunteer for coral conservation efforts or beach cleanups, and practice safe boating and avoid anchoring in areas with coral and sea grasses. Don’t leave trash on the beach, and choose sunscreen that doesn’t contain chemicals that harm marine life.
Main image: Andros Barrier Reef. (Source: Unknown, Internet)
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