The construction of the proposed billion-dollar Toco Port will completely destroy one of this country’s best-kept secrets—the bio-diverse Grande L'Anse coral reef in Toco.
That’s according to Trinidad-born biologist DR Stanton Belford who has been conducting research at the reef since 2004.
Home to approximately 79 species Grande L'Anse coral reef is a shallow marginal, turbid, and a high-energy system.
The shallow part of the reef (ie, reef crest and back reef) runs approximately 0.8 km along the shore, traversing Toco Bay, from Baptist Bay (both bays make up Grande L'Anse) to the fishing jetty, and extends only about 50 m from shore to the outer edge of the reef crest.
Belford, a Biology Professor at Martin Methodist College, Tennessee, USA, has published three scientific papers about his research and has even donated posters to the Toco Secondary School and lifeguard booth at Salybia, in an attempt to educate students and people about the importance of the coral reefs along the north-eastern coast of Trinidad.
"I’ve done 19 years of environmental monitoring at the reefs, but I guess they (the Government) will know more in three months," Belford told the Sunday Guardian in an exclusive interview.
He expressed disappointment with Government’s lack of concern for the environment and its decision to move ahead with the project, following an application by the Ministry of Works and Transport to the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) for a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC), specifically to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) at Grande L'Anse, Toco.
In April, National Infrastructure Development Company Limited (NIDCO) in partnership with the ministry advised the public that a copy of the draft Terms of Reference for the EIA was available for public viewing at the Toco Regional Complex, from April 12-18, 2019.
Belford responded by letter dated April 19, 2019, to the project engineer of the Toco Port Facility:
"Having viewed the draining plan, access road plan, cadastral map, diesel piping layout, reclamation plans, and architectural site layout highlighted on the Fisherman and Friends of the Sea-FFOS Facebook page, it is very clear that the reefs described in this report will undergo 100 per cent destruction," he wrote.
"An environmental study and monitoring on reefs at Grande L'Anse and Salybia Reef are ongoing. Annual data have been collected for over 15 years by students and faculty of Martin Methodist College and the University of the West Indies, hence a 'snapshot' environmental study proposed in the CEC by the Ministry of Works and Transport will not be a robust assessment of the current condition of the marine environment."
Though considered to be marginal, Trinidad’s coral systems provide important ecosystem goods and services, whose value, generally, have not been appreciated by resource managers according to Belford’s latest research paper titled "Biodiversity of Coral Reef Communities in Marginal Environments along the North-Eastern Coast of Trinidad, Southern Caribbean".
"Grande L'Anse Reef, for instance, provides some measure of protection for housing and infrastructure along an otherwise eroding coastline. Some, such as those at Macqueripe, Blanchisseuse, and Toco Bay, provide sea moss, shell and fin-fish, and recreation," Belford wrote in the research paper published in April this year.
The survey of the biological diversity of coral and associated reef organisms was conducted for the two reefs—Salybia and Grande L'Anse—located along the north-eastern coast of Trinidad by reviewing the literature, museum collections, and conducting field surveys between the years 2005 through 2019.
The study found 257 species belonging to 134 families, 23 classes, and 11 phyla. Research, however, is still ongoing.
Despite their proximity to each other, only 42 species were common to both reefs. Of the other species, most (178) were found at Salybia Reef.
Belford said this was the first complete marine biodiversity survey for the most north-eastern part of Trinidad, which includes the only fringing coral reef in Trinidad.
Belford, who attended the Arima Senior Comprehensive School said he first visited the reef with his secondary school teacher Ms Carol Draper from Arima in the early 1990s.
"It was here where my interest in marine life began, and many years later I completed my Masters of Science degree at Middle Tennessee State University under the guidance of Dr Dawn Phillip (lecturer at UWI). Dawn unexpectedly passed last year. We had so many plans to monitor the reefs at Toco, however I carry on this task in respect to her," he added.
"From this work we now have published three (3) science articles. Dawn continually took a UWI class to these reefs to continue research, and now I am doing the same with students from Tennessee."
NIDCO chairman responds
NIDCO chairman Herbert George said yesterday that he had not seen Mr Belford's letter; "and quite frankly, my seeing it will serve no useful purpose".
He said that "NIDCO, as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment that it has commissioned, is doing baseline studies on many important environmental aspects that will be impacted by the proposed project. This is a necessary prerequisite to securing the Certificate of Environmental Clearance for the project.
"The study, among other objectives, will define the extent and location of the reef; it will identify possible effects that the proposed facility will have on the reef, to the extent that the reef is present at the location or is in the vicinity of the proposed site; and it will define suitable mitigation measures to be implemented in the protection and preservation of the reef, if indeed the reef is being impacted by the project.
"The full study will be submitted to the EMA for their use in determining whether a CEC should be granted for execution of the project. To say that the reef will undergo 100 per cent destruction is alarmist and without factual basis."
T&T NOT A SIGNATORY TO INTERNATIONAL CORAL REEF INITIATIVE
Apart from being incubators of much of the world’s marine biodiversity, coral reefs provide several critical ecosystem goods and services such as shoreline protection, nutrient cycling as well as recreation and tourism.
Despite their importance, coral reefs are among the most threatened of the world’s ecosystems.
It is estimated that as much as 20 per cent of coral reefs across the globe had been destroyed, with very little chances of recovery, and further, that 24 per cent of the reefs across the world were facing impending collapse.
Threats to reefs range from over-exploitation and use of destructive resource exploitation methods, to pollution, disease outbreaks, and climate change.
The International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) was founded in 1994 in response to global recognition that coral reefs and related ecosystems found in tropical and sub-tropical regions are facing serious degradation, primarily due to anthropogenic stresses.
According to the Australian High Commission in T&T, co-chair of ICRI with Monaco and Indonesia for 2018-20, T&T is yet to submit an application to join the initiative.
Members include a mix of more than 60 governments, NGOs and international organisations.
There are currently four CARICOM countries that are members of ICRI, including Barbados, Belize, Grenada, and Jamaica.
Australia, France, Japan, Jamaica, the Philippines, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States were the founding members of ICRI in 1994.
Australia and Belize co-chaired the ICRI Secretariat in 2012-13.