Where have all the corals gone? According to a recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) they are dying a quick death, leaving around eight per cent of live corals in reefs in the Caribbean. Most of this country’s coral reefs are located around Tobago, and these reefs support biodiversity and provide food, tourism and coastal protection to the island. In Jamaica the percentage of live coral was said to be much less than ten per cent, while the Netherland Antilles and Cayman Islands have 30 per cent. And while numbers may give an idea of the dire circumstances affecting the corals, the report makes it plain, stating that the Caribbean coral reefs are deteriorating rapidly. In 1970, coral cover in the Caribbean was 80 per cent, today it stands at an average of ten per cent. There is no sign of the rate of coral death slowing. The report blames severe environmental problems such as over-exploitation, pollution from agricultural run-off and other sources and climate change.
So what happens if all of the Caribbean’s corals die? Chief Executive Officer of the EMA, Joth Singh said if corals were to disappear completely, there would be a dramatic effect on fishery and food security. “Coral reefs, certainly in places like Tobago supply food for fish and other marine life. Shore-line fishery depend on systems like mangrove and coral reefs to survive, so it would definitely have an adverse effect,” said Singh. “Reefs also affect shoreline stability, as it breaks waves before they reach the shores. “They play an important part in the ecosystems they inhabit and also provide substantial value in terms of the services they provide. In a report published by the World Resources Institute in 2008, Tobago’s coral reefs contributed approximately US$286 Million to Tobago’s economy in 2006. These services range from providing revenue from fisheries associated with the reefs, tourism associated with the reefs, and protection from wave energy to the coastal areas by reefs.” While admitting that decreased levels of live coral was definitely an issue of concern, Singh had reservations about the data presented in the report.
“The report in question that was published in the UK Guardian, by its own admission, represents a ‘very preliminary analysis…of half the datasets from 29 Caribbean countries.’ Interestingly, while some countries had more than 20 studies that were reviewed for this preliminary report, there was only one study for Tobago that was included in the analysis. The report also admits that assuming local differences are unimportant is a false assumption.” He said there were seven key geographic areas that were the focus of the research analysed for this report; Bonaire, Curacao, Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Florida Keys, and the US Virgin Islands and would be inaccurate to state that the report represents the situation in Trinidad and Tobago. “Science acknowledges that there are many threats to coral reefs in the Caribbean and Trinidad and Tobago’s reefs, which occur predominantly around Tobago, are not immune to these threats. Most of these threats arise from human activities, for example nutrient enrichment from land based runoff and sewage, increased sedimentation in near-shore areas, removal of species of fishes that graze on macroalgae (seaweeds) that if left unchecked will overgrow coral colonies.”
He said increased sea temperatures could and do affect corals negatively, causing coral bleaching such as the Caribbean-wide bleaching event of 2005. “Research by the Buccoo Reef Trust, in collaboration with the Coral Cay Conservation, an internationally renowned and accredited coral conservation specialist group, indicated that an average of 66 per cent of Tobago’s corals were affected by bleaching, with some areas as high as 85 per cent and some as low as 20 per cent.
“It must be noted as well that these specialist research groups state that it is not possible to predict the nature and extent of any subsequent mortality/recovery to the reefs of Tobago.” The EMA head said his organisation recognised the value of the coral reefs to Tobago and it has been engaged in the process of designating Buccoo Reef as an Environmentally Sensitive Area. This designation will afford much greater protection to the reef system at Buccoo. In a 2010 Status report on Coral Reefs by the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA), Jahson Alemu, Reef Ecologist said the reefs of T&T were unique in their ability to persist in an environment heavily influenced by the runoff events from the South American continent, including freshwater, sediment and nutrients from the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers. The report said Trinidad’s reefs are not as extensive as those found in Tobago; in fact most are either rocky reefs or coral reef communities. “The largest known coral reef in Trinidad is a developing fringing reef system occurring immediately off the north east coast of Trinidad at Toco.
Other known coral communities exist along the north western peninsula and at some localities along the northern and southern coasts. Relic reefs have also been noted at locations along the southern coast and although long dead, they still bear strong indications of the prevailing conditions at the time and what reefs looked like thousands of years ago.” “In Tobago, the greatest declines in coral cover was noted at Culloden reef with more than 50- 60 per cent mean coral cover decline observed consistently across all reef zones. Moderate increases in mean coral cover were noted at Arnos Vale, Speyside and Charlotteville at the shallow reefs, but there was a steady decrease in coral cover along the fore reef.” According to the IMA the last two decades have seen a considerable increase in stress on the coral reef ecosystems, stemming from increased pollution, coastal development, land use changes, increased artisanal fishing and increased tourism, coupled with limited marine resource protection laws and enforcement—a regional problem not entirely unique to Trinidad and Tobago. Boat Operator Quincy Frank, admits to noticing a decrease in corals over the past years.
Frank who has operated a glass-bottom boat in Speyside, Tobago for the past 13 years, said a lot of the live coral has died in places like Buccoo Reef. “There are a lot of reefs in Tobago. There is Flying Manta Reef, Coral Gardens, Angel Reef, Aquarium Reef and a lot of others but in all of them we are seeing less of the coral than before.”